- Low Black Student Retention on a Predominantly White Campus:Two Faculty Respond with the African American Student Network
Black student retention in institutions of higher education is an important 21st-century issue. Thompson, Gorin, Obeidat, and Chen (2006) asserted that Blacks are still underrepresented in institutions of higher education and graduate at lower rates than Whites and Asians over a 5-year period. According to the American Council on Education, at the turn of the century only 40% of eligible Black students went to college, with only 46% of the 40% graduating within 6 years (Astin & Oseguera, 2005). At our own university, a large Midwestern research institution, available data indicate that the 4-year graduation rate for even the highest ability students is approximately 25% higher for Whites than for Blacks (Zetterberg, 2003). This public university serves more than 65,000 students, with 40,437 of those being undergraduates (University Relations, 2006); Blacks make up 4.7% of the undergraduate population, and students of color comprise 17.3% (Office of Institutional Research, 2006). Considering Black undergraduates who enrolled in 1998, of those with the highest college entrance scores only about 25% graduated 4 years later, in 2002 (Zetterberg). In an effort to improve retention and graduation rates on our campus, two Black faculty have responded with the African American Student Network, or as students call it AFAM (signifying African American and "A Family"). We write the current paper to share our response to the problem of retention at our university and to explore Black student experiences. We include an overview of our program and a pilot study assessing the program's impact.
Overview of the African American Student Network
Black college students face a number of stressors including lack of knowledge about the college process, institutional racism, poor health and energy, social isolation, and family and economic problems (Arnold, 1993; D'Augelli & Hersberger, 1993), and when there is no critical mass of Blacks and/or students of color on campus, Black students' social networks tend to be compromised and the challenges compounded (D'Augelli & Hersberger; McCauley, 1988; Pike & Kuh, 2006). Facilitating intact social support systems and psychological well-being for Black college students is imperative, particularly on predominantly White campuses. AFAM is [End Page 476] designed to attend to the challenges by providing space for Black students to address, understand, and cope with stressors. The network includes university faculty and staff and provides students with access to upper classman in a supportive atmosphere. Conceived by two faculty members AFAM is a weekly networking group that meets over the lunch hour.
The underlying philosophy of AFAM is that within each student is the ability to reduce the gap between the real and ideal self, and our role as faculty is to use the collective wisdom of the group to facilitate the closing of that gap. Relationships are at the cornerstone of AFAM, including relationship to self, others, and institutions. The group is open to all Black undergraduates on campus as well as graduate students, staff, and resource persons interested in stopping by and participating. Meeting over the lunch hour, we use food to build relationships and a sense of community. Food is cultural and an integral component of Black communal gatherings. Food is also sustenance, and its presence embodies the purpose of AFAM, which is to nurture Black students, mind, body, and spirit. Furthermore, breaking bread together recognizes universal basic needs for care and nourishment across status and hierarchy and helps create a sense of family or home—a secure base for Black students on a predominantly White campus.
Psychological well-being is emphasized through the content of the group, where the focus is helping students understand and improve their relationship to self, others, community, and the university. At the core of any relationship is trust. In fact, Raider Roth (2005) argued that trust is essential for connection and often the culprit when there is disconnection. The group focuses on the four major ingredients Raider-Roth put forth for developing trustworthy relationships in educational settings. These include the ability to be connected to students, the ability...