Cortlon Cofield said Thursday nights were always special during his freshman year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That’s because Thursdays were "Food for the Soul" night in the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (known as FAR).
“This was an event where the cafe served soul food and acquired a DJ to play hip-hop music for dinner,” Cofield said. “Hundreds of African-American students were involved. There would sometimes be step shows and other social activities.
“However, by my junior year there was a very noticeable drop-off in attendance, and they even skipped certain Thursdays.”
By the time he graduated with his master’s degree in accounting in 2014, even “the stoop” behind the Student Union, “where black kids would chill between classes and converse,” had become vacant. Cofield realized the number of black students on his campus was dwindling.
“It got kind of sad because I know there are more students deserving to be here,” he said.
It wasn’t his imagination. Statistics recently presented to the Illinois Board of Higher Education confirm that enrollment of black students in Illinois public universities has fallen sharply the past few years. Illinois’ flagship school, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has the lowest percentage of African-American enrollment, with just 5.5 percent last year.
According to the board’s 2014 annual report on “underrepresented groups,” the number of black undergraduates enrolled in public and community colleges statewide dropped from 82,633 in 2012 to 78,217 in 2013.
Although it would be easy to attribute this 8.24 percent decline purely to the lagging economy, education researchers can recite a laundry list of contributing factors. State funding for the Monetary Award Program, known as MAP grants, has been cut in recent years as Illinois has faced budget challenges. A decade ago, MAP grants were awarded to all students who needed them. In 2013, only about half of applicants received them.
Arthur Sutton, IBHE’s deputy director for diversity and outreach, said Chicago families who move to southern suburbs that are across the state line end up sending their kids to college in Indiana. And he pointed out that private, for-profit schools have begun actively targeting their marketing campaigns toward African-Americans.
But another factor is the cold reality that roadblocks interfering with a black student’s path to college can begin even before first grade.
Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, has done a series of studies tracking students who do and don’t make it to college, and who may or may not receive degrees. She said most kids sincerely want to go to college.
“A lot of times, people think that first generation students aren’t committed, or their parents don’t want them to go, but we find that’s rare,” Allensworth said. “The vast majority of students from all backgrounds want to obtain a four-year degree. But there’s all these places where they drop off.”
The earliest sign, Allensworth said, is “chronic absenteeism” — not to be confused with truancy. Kids of any race may have repeated excused absences due to health problems, but kids who live in poverty may incur absences due to the health problems of a family member.
“For younger kids, if there’s one family member that’s sick, the parent can’t necessarily bring other kids to school, or pick them up,” Allensworth said. Older kids might be tasked with looking after sick siblings or sick parents and have to miss school.
“If I had some family emergency, I could afford a babysitter. You can’t do that if you don’t have money,” Allensworth said.
Absenteeism can also stem from the other kinds of chaos that come with poverty, such as unstable housing arrangements, unreliable transportation and parents with rigid yet unpredictable work schedules, who might not be able to take kids to school every day. Too many of these absences here and there can stack up and form barriers to education.
“If you’re not in school, you’re not learning, so you’re falling further behind, and that is problematic even if it’s not truancy,” Allensworth said. “If you’re chronically absent, college is pretty much unattainable.”
Absenteeism is sometimes the byproduct of school discipline policies, which are used most heavily with African American students, especially boys. In 2012, The New York Times cited a massive Department of Education report encompassing about 85 percent of students nationwide, showing that black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.
William Trent, a professor of educational policy, African- American studies and sociology, said other studies show that black students receive more frequent suspensions and expulsions than their white peers. And once suspended, they’re more likely to be suspended again and again.
“We have research that shows African-American kids getting into disciplinary difficulty; there’s an inverse relationship between the number of disciplinary encounters and the probability of high educational attainment. So the more disciplinary trouble you get into, the more costly it is if you’re a black kid,” Trent said. “That relationship is statistically insignificant if you’re a white kid.”
That pattern leads to a predictable result. “One of the most effective ways of getting students to drop out,” Trent said, “is to create a circumstance where they’re substantially behind in school.”
A broader problem, he said, is the extreme inequity in public school funding across Illinois because of the state’s reliance on local property taxes to support public education. Schools funded by north Chicago suburban land values have facilities and course offerings that downstate schools could never afford.
“The funding disparities across the state are huge,” Trent said. “The assessed value basis for funding public education is a problem that makes the quality of educational experience dependent on residence.”
So zip code can influence both whether and where a student goes to college. “The quality of the K-12 experience has a tremendous amount to do with readiness for post-secondary education,” he said.
Take, for example, advanced placement classes. Students who take these college-level courses in high school and pass AP tests earn college credits for their efforts. And with weighted grading structures, they earn GPAs higher than 4.0, making them tough to compete with for college admissions. But these AP courses are luxuries some districts simply can’t afford.
“Many black and Hispanic and poor students, irrespective of race, attend schools where the number of AP courses offered is just extremely limited, and that places them at a distinct disadvantage,” Trent said.
“Your child may be at a high school with no AP courses and get absolute straight As. They may be in competition with a kid who goes to an AP-rich school and has a 5.8 or 6.0 GPA. That’s just part of the disparity in the admissions formula that colleges and universities use.”
African-American students who excel academically might not end up enrolling in a four-year school, for a variety of reasons. Their families may look at the sticker price, find it too expensive and send their child to a two-year college instead. Allensworth, whose research focuses on Chicago Public Schools, says that’s the kind of short-sighted decision students were making before CPS developed a post-secondary department that placed college counselors in the high schools, around 2009.
“There are a lot of students who could get into a four-year college and could get much more financial aid … that will go to a two-year college because the sticker price is lower. It seems like it’s cheaper,” Allensworth said.
But researchers have discovered that for students straight out of high school, choosing a two-year college decreases the odds that they will ever get a four-year degree. They may waste time and money taking courses that don’t transfer, Allensworth said. And they will miss out on the resources, the culture, the vibe of a four-year institution, where there are support services ready to help students navigate academic and financial rough spots.
Then there are the students who know they want to attend a four-year school and have the test scores and GPAs to get accepted at the state’s flagship school, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Enough of those students choose not to enroll that the school has multiple task forces trying to figure out why, Trent says.
“For the past two years, the number of enrolled undergrads here at the UI campus in Urbana has fallen far short of what would be expected and what is aspired to in terms of the representation of the students,” Trent said. “That drop in enrollment is a reflection not necessarily of the decline in applicants, or the percentage of African- American students who are admitted; it is really reflective of a drop in the number of admitted African-American students who accept the offer of admissions.”
The theory is that these high-achieving minority students are lured away by better scholarship packages offered by schools in surrounding states, Trent said.
Charles Tucker, U of I’s vice-provost for undergraduate education and innovation, counters the low number of black students with stats showing that African-Americans at the school have a high graduation rate — relative to other Big Ten schools.
“Our campus is … third in degrees awarded to African American students,” he said in an email. “We also award more degrees to graduates of the Chicago Public Schools than any other four-year college or university.”
One four-year school that has long prided itself on attracting African-American students is Southern Illinois University Carbondale. According to the IBHE report, the student body is more than 20% African-American — the third-highest percentage of schools listed in the report after Chicago State University and Governors State University. Derrick Williams, coordinator of the school’s Black Resource Center, said SIUC’s 3,481 African-American students puts it on par with some Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
The school actively recruits minorities through visits to the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, college fairs in East St. Louis and the Black Student Leadership Conference. But the best marketing, Williams said, is word of mouth.
“You can go pretty much anywhere and find someone that has graduated from SIU. So our biggest promoter is our very strong black alumni positioned in Chicago,” he said “They really do a great job of spreading the word.”
To increase the odds of these students receiving diplomas, SIUC’s Black Resource Center links students to financial aid, the writing center and other campus support services and generally provides a “cultural space” for African-American students.
Williams also runs the Black Men’s Initiative, providing tiered mentorship to male African-American freshmen. He said their research has shown that if they can get students through their freshman year, and into their sophomore year, they’re likely to complete a degree program. So the school has established a “living learning community” where African-American men have the opportunity to live together on the same floor of a dorm.
It sounds a bit like FAR — the dorm Cofield remembers so fondly from his freshman year at the University of Illinois. But he believes the school stopped honoring freshman dorm choices in an effort to disperse black students. “I’m not saying it’s a written rule, but I know plenty of students that put strictly FAR and didn’t get to live there,” he said.
Cofield credited a program called “100 Strong” with bringing him to UIUC. The summer after his junior year of high school, he received an invitation in the mail, announcing that he was one of their top 100 recruits.
“That spoke to me,” he said. “They reached out to my house, my address, and said we want you to come here and join this program. That was a big deal for me.”
Targeting black students specifically, 100 Strong moved Cofield and 99 others into their dorms a week early, then put them through a series of tours and seminars to acquaint them with the 1,800-acre campus and its vast student-support resources. He believes it was crucial to his success at UIUC.
“They were basically giving us the key notes of how to get through freshman year of college at the University of Illinois,” Cofield said. “Once you get acclimated with the school and know everything, going to class and passing class isn’t that hard.”
The 100 Strong program is administered by UIUC’s Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, and its current director, Rory James, said he had to put the program “on hiatus” in 2010. The school re-activated a two-day version of the early-move-in component in the fall of 2014. In the meantime, another program called RISE, which targets low-income first-generation students, not just African-Americans, offered similar activities, James said.
Cofield might not have made it without 100 Strong. He entered the University of Illinois with odds stacked against him. He had already lost both of his parents, and had to earn his way into the College of Business by maintaining a 3.5 GPA during his freshman year after falling two points short of the required 25 on his ACT.
He became president of the predominantly black Men of Impact student organization, focused on ensuring that African-American men had the tools they needed to graduate. He earned a full scholarship to graduate school, and now works as an auditor at KPMG in Chicago.
He would recommend his alma mater to anyone, but he said no one at the university has asked him to do any recruiting or outreach.
“UI asks me to give back — financially,” he said. “It’s up to the institution to really push if they want more minority students.”