Alexis Turner

Kent State University at Ashtabula freshman Alexis Turner chose Ashtabula in part because of its cost. “I didn’t want any debt.”

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ASHTABULA, Ohio — Alexis Turner listened carefully as the administrators at the freshman orientation for Kent State University at Ashtabula ticked through the student groups she could join on campus that fall: English Society, Psychology Club, Student Veterans Association.

She left the auditorium apprehensive. There was no Black Student Union, Latino Student Union or Multicultural Society.

Once the semester started, it became more apparent why those clubs don’t exist.

“There’s not a lot of black representation,” said Turner, a black freshman.

Kent State Ashtabula is in a rural county near Cleveland, where black and Latino students make up about a third of the local high school. While Turner is right — black students are underrepresented at the university — hundreds have enrolled in the last decade.

Very few have succeeded.

The six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time black students has been zero for five years running, according to federal data.

Kent State Ashtabula sign

At Kent State University at Ashtabula, 55 black students received an associate or bachelor’s degree between fall 2013 and spring 2019.

University officials said that number fails to capture all its students because Ashtabula is a regional, or satellite, campus. Although Ashtabula offers both associate and bachelor’s degrees, officials said, the main campus, Kent State University at Kent, receives credit for Ashtabula’s students who pursue certain bachelor’s degrees.

Between fall 2013 and spring 2019, university officials say, 55 black students received an associate or bachelor’s degree from Ashtabula. That’s an average of eight a year, at an institution where about 100 black students enroll annually.

When it comes to graduating black students, the university has one of the worst records in Ohio among public colleges and universities, in a state that stands out nationally for how poorly it serves students of color.

In Ohio, “black students are half as likely to complete a degree at a public four-year institution compared to white students,” said Marshall Anthony Jr., a research analyst for higher education at Ed Trust. The six-year grad rate for black students in Ohio is about 30 percent, compared to 40 percent for black students nationally.

Ohio has a desperate need for more college graduates, but its problems serving black students contrast with universities across the U.S. that are actively working to attract more diverse students and make sure they succeed. Many college systems in other states are adding more support services, like centers for students of color, data tracking to keep tabs on students’ progress and even cash grants for those facing financial difficulties.

Though Ashtabula has limited support services targeted for black students, officials at the university said the graduation rates aren’t their fault.

Valerie Gonzalez

“We want people to come here and know that they’re accepted no matter what,” said Valerie Gonzalez, an Ashtabula alum and admissions counselor.

School leaders say their students, many of whom are low-income, must juggle jobs along with their coursework, lengthening the time it takes them to graduate. They also said local public schools don’t prepare young people for the rigor required for university classes.

“Before they can enroll in, I’m going to say college-level, courses, they're in developmental math or developmental English,” said Susan J. Stocker, the dean and chief administrative officer. “They're taking at least a year to complete prerequisites.”

Across the state, Kent State’s campuses of comparable size are also struggling to serve these students. Among full-time, first-time students at Kent State University Salem, which is 4-percent black, two black students received an associate degree and one received a bachelor’s degree in 2017.

At the Tuscarawas campus, also 4-percent black, one black student received an associate degree and zero received a bachelor’s in 2017. Student enrollment hovers between 1,400 and 1,800 students at each institution.

Part of Ohio’s challenge is cost.

“Ohio is 45th out of 50 states in college affordability. Like we are one of the worst — the worst places — cost wise,” said Maggie McGrath, director of the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland.

Cost of attendance is now at $8,101, and 62 percent of students receive federal aid, though it’s often not enough. Between 2004 and 2014, Ohio cut funding for a college grant program for low-income students by 33 percent. The state also consistently decreased spending on colleges and universities for 10 years.

In 2018, it spent 16.5 percent less per full-time equivalent student, after adjusting for inflation, than it did in 2008.

Related: Black college students in Illinois get the short end of the financial stick

Yet money doesn’t completely explain why Ohio’s public universities are failing to graduate students of color.

Campus culture is a major factor in student success, research has found. And black college students at Ashtabula rarely see a faculty member who’s a person of color.

This school year, only four of 99 instructional faculty members were people of color. Scholars have long argued that minority faculty provide mentorship for minority students and enrich the classroom in other ways. Nonetheless, at Ashtabula, no programs are underway to increase that number, and no campus administrator is specifically charged with running diversity initiatives.

Turner wishes the university had additional resources for black college students like her, though their numbers are relatively small. Black students at Ashtabula comprise 6 percent of the student body; students of color overall, about 15 percent.

“I honestly don’t even really see people my color at school,” she said. “I wish there were more.

“It gives me an unsettling feeling.”

The state should be more proactive with helping black students succeed, said Anthony from Ed Trust.

“Public institutions in Ohio most certainly have to do more to serve black students,” Anthony said.

Kent State University at Ashtabula is small, just four buildings for nearly 2,000 students. The campus is located in Ohio’s northeast corner, bordering Lake Erie, 53 miles from Cleveland. About 17 percent of households in Ashtabula County earn incomes under the federal poverty line, and there are few options for postsecondary education.

“We’re the only college in our county,” said Amanda Dolan, director of enrollment management and student services. “We’re our own competition.”

The journey to graduation for most Ashtabula students takes longer than six years because they juggle several responsibilities outside of school. At Ashtabula, 43 percent of students are part-time, which naturally slows their pace for degree attainment.

“Eight years for a bachelor's degree, four years for an associate degree, maybe three and a half for an associate degree,” Dolan said. “Most of our students are working and have families.”

Turner chose Ashtabula largely for its location, 10 minutes from her home, and its price.

“I didn’t want any debt,” Turner said.

Her federal Pell Grant, reserved for college students with the highest financial need, covers much of her costs. If she graduates, she’ll be the first in her family with a college degree.

In Ohio, 44 percent of working-age adults have a certificate or degree, but to keep up with workforce demand that number needs to reach 65 percent, according to the state's department of education. To make Ohio an attractive option for businesses and jobs, Ohio is pushing for 1 million more adults to get a certificate or degree by 2025.

Manufacturing dominates here, meaning that, for decades, some of the best jobs haven’t required a college degree. Most residents have a high school diploma, yet only 28 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Census data.

But in Ohio the high-wage jobs that are growing the fastest now require more education.

Jobs in health care are expanding, which is a plus for Turner, who is studying nursing, a career that could propel her into the middle class.

Turner attended Ashtabula's Lakeside High School, where almost every student is economically disadvantaged. The Ohio Department of Education gave Lakeside an F for its ability to prepare students for life after high school. Turner says Lakeside required her class to take the ACT college-entrance exam her junior year, but didn’t actively help students study. For the Lakeside class of 2016, just 37 percent entered college within two years.

“I wasn’t prepared for it,” said Turner, who scored less than 20.3, the average score for Ohio test takers.

Related: Many state flagship universities leave black and Latino students behind

University officials say they offer plenty of help outside of class for students to get up to speed. Ashtabula regularly has more than a dozen tutors available, and can increase the number depending on need, said Carol Jones, coordinator of academic services.

Students receive academic advising and can visit the writing center, sign up for tutoring or attend supplemental instruction.

Supplemental instruction “targets our historically difficult classes,” Jones said. These are classes in which students often get a grade of D or F, such as anatomy and physiology.

Supplemental instruction, just like the campus’ tutoring program and writing center offerings, is optional. The instructors for the supplemental learning option spend three hours a week going over lectures, preparing students for exams and offering other guidance.

As a nursing major, Turner has taken classes in anatomy and physiology, chemistry and English, a rigorous course load that has had her in class until 7 p.m. some evenings. The irregularity of the college course schedule places more responsibility on her to keep up with class material.

“It’s harder for me to remember everything and stay fresh on all of the content,” she said.

Many students are unable to persist through the tough classes and, as a result, leave the university. Ashtabula had the lowest retention rate of full-time students in 2017 — 44 percent — of all public colleges and universities in Ohio.

With so many institutions with low retention and graduation rates, the state has taken a few recent steps to make college more enticing and affordable. In July, Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation to increase funding for Ohio’s college grant program by $50 million over two years.

Despite a significant depletion of the state’s budget because of the covid-19 pandemic, “everything possible will be done to ensure that these higher-level per-student award amounts are maintained in the next academic year,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner in a statement.

DeWine has also said public institutions will be required to guarantee that students will pay the same tuition their freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. The COVID-19 crisis, however, may hurt these efforts to improve student outcomes. The state’s revenue is down by almost $777 million. Hence, in May the governor reduced the state’s higher education budget by $110 million.

Changing the culture of the institutions, however, while challenging, could reap more benefits, education experts say. Diverse college classrooms can help students sharpen their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Students of color in such classrooms are also at a lower risk of experiencing discrimination, which can affect how and if they excel.

When a student doesn’t see others like them, it can affect their performance and persistence in school, McGrath said.

“They don’t feel comfortable,” she said.

At orientation this summer, Deahrah Williams, a black student, was already considering transferring to another university after she finishes a year at Ashtabula.

“I feel like, as African Americans, when we get a chance to leave or do something better, we take the chance,” Williams said.

She grew up in Ashtabula, and says her father wants her to go south for college because he thinks there will be more opportunities.

Nate Ritchey, vice president for Kent State System Integration, which requires him to be a bridge between the Kent campus and the regional institutions and keep track of enrollment at all of the universities, agrees that the university system should be doing more to recruit and support students of color.

“There’s a need across the regional campuses to increase diversity. That’s absolutely true,” he said. “In the last couple of years, we’ve invested in a lot of recruiters.

“Before that, students kind of just showed up on a regional campus.”

Other changes, though slow, may be on the way. The retention rate for all freshmen is going up, Ritchey says, rising from 50 percent to 56 percent between the most recent school years, though he couldn’t verify that black freshmen are included in this uptick.

Some students of color have felt more at home at Ashtabula. Valerie Gonzalez, a 2018 Ashtabula graduate, wanted to attend Ohio University but couldn’t afford it. At Ashtabula, she picked up a work-study job in the admissions office and fell in love with the university, so much so that she wanted to continue working there after graduation.

Ashtabula wanted her to stay, too. Gonzalez, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, speaks Spanish. As an admissions counselor, she supports Spanish speaking students. And she helped launch the school’s first Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations this school year.

“We want this to be a campus where people feel safe,” Gonzalez said. “We want people to come here and know that they’re accepted no matter what.”

School administrators say they’re following their students’ lead on which cultural activities to introduce. They said there’s been little excitement for a club or student group for black students, but that could be a reflection of the university’s low black student population rather than a real lack of interest.

Turner considered starting a group for black students like herself early in the school year, but once classes started and she saw how few other black students there were, she paused. She was also too busy. She works 28 to 35 hours a week at a gas station — ringing up items, making food and meeting other customer needs — on top of taking a full course load.

“Of course you have those moments where you get very overwhelmed, and you’re like, man, like is this even for me?” Turner said. “But you have to keep going. That’s the only thing you can do is keep going. So that’s what I’m doing now.”

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