As Wisconsin becomes more and more diverse, so do its high school graduates. In 2000, for example, 10 percent of high school graduates in Wisconsin were students of color. By 2016, that number had more than doubled to 22 percent. But how are they fairing in the post-high school higher-education world?

Not very well, says a new study from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

“Of all graduates from Wisconsin high schools, 40 percent of white graduates enroll in the UW System. Just 25 percent of Latino/a graduates and 14 percent of black graduates enroll in the UW System,” the report says. “The chances that students of color from Wisconsin enroll in the UW System has declined while the white rate has held steady. In terms of access to UW System, racial and ethnic inequality is substantial and increasing. “

The report, titled “Investing in Wisconsin’s Future: Closing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Wisconsin’s Public Higher Education” says that very low access by students of color means that even high rates of graduation don’t produce that many graduates of color. Of white students who entered UW Madison in 2010, 4033 finished degrees within six years. That same class held 175 Latino/a graduates and 90 black graduates.

Matthew Braunginn

“Systems-wide, we’ve seen a movement away from bringing in students of color from Wisconsin and that access disparity will hurt in the long run, particularly when you look at Milwaukee,” Matthew Braunginn, one of the authors of the study, tells Madison365. “UW-Madison has done a great job in closing graduation disparities but they are bringing in increasingly less students from Wisconsin. Same with [UW-] Milwaukee. The fact that we don’t have students of color going to school here at the same rate – that access disparity is huge and that is something that needs to be addressed most urgently. We need to get kids in.”

Securing strong economic opportunity for Wisconsin’s working families and closing racial and ethnic income disparity requires strong attention to the access and success of students of color at our state’s colleges and universities, concludes the new document written by Braunginn and COWS colleagues Laura Dresser and Emanuel Ubert. In this report, they focus on college degrees – both the two year associates degrees offered by the 16 colleges of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and four year bachelor’s degrees offered by colleges throughout the University of Wisconsin System (UWS).

“With WTCS, it’s going to be a lot more diverse, but we really need to make the investment in the technical colleges to make sure that there is a higher completion rate, particularly for students of color,” Braunginn says. “There’s going to be more of a fluctuation in kids enrolling in technical schools depending on how the economy is doing but I think we really need to look a completion in technical schools which really is a national thing. Wisconsin isn’t alone in those numbers.”

COWS is a nonprofit think-and-do tank, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that promotes “high-road” solutions to social problems. These treat shared growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability, and resilient democratic institutions as necessary and achievable complements in human development. Through various projects, COWS works with cities around the country to promote innovation and the implementation of high-road policy.

“We’ve been putting this particular report together since early 2018. It was a learning experience,” Braunginn says. “It was fun and interesting putting it together and doing the research. I think transparency in equity is huge. It was good to put together this report but it would be great if both WTCS and UW Systems would put together an equity report that would dive into different suggestions on how they could keep an eye on and increase the students coming from Wisconsin. That is so important for increasing the diversity.”

Transparency on equity was one of the report’s recommendations. Annual reports on racial and ethnic equity in access and graduation for both UWS and WTCS could help inform innovation, improve outcomes, and engage campus community and other leaders.

Another recommendation is targeted racial/ethnic academic support initiatives – A range of strategies and practices targeted to support students of color have been shown to increase graduation rates. Extending strong models from within the state and adapting proven practices from outside the state, the report concludes, would help UWS and WTCS create a more welcoming and supportive environment for students of color.

“You can’t undo years of, and continued, at times, policies of targeted racial and ethnic oppression through colorblind policies,” Braunginn says. “You have to use targeted policies to undo targeted policies.”

“Our solutions need to be targeted. Internal academic support, for example. We see how culturally competent advisers and counselors and faculty and instructors are really paramount to creating higher graduation rates for students,” Braunginn adds. “Engaging with professors and staff and faculty that look and talk like you and have had your experiences … it’s not mind-blowing that it helps students of color. It’s so important to have that … to have these supportive environments for students of color including spaces for students of color for the holistic and mental health of the students.”

The third recommendation from the report is “Tuition and Beyond: Economically Targeted Aid & Non-Tuition Supports.” Racial and ethnic inequality puts more students of color in a position of economic disadvantage. As a result, students of color have much to gain from financial assistance and economic support that is targeted to the economically disadvantaged. Tuition assistance is critical here, the report says, but increasing awareness of housing, food, and child care costs is increasingly relevant to students.

“What we found is that there’s so much that goes beyond tuition,” Braunginn says. “Thirty-six percent of students are housing insecure. Thirty-six percent are food insecure … and that’s across the nation. And those students are more likely to be students of color and more likely to be economically disadvantaged. So offering economic support outside of tuition support goes a long way to keeping students enrolled. This will help close the graduation disparities.”

The final recommendation is targeted investment in UW-Milwaukee, which means that serious work to close racial and ethnic inequities must start where the state’s most diverse population resides, the report says, and investment in UW-Milwaukee focused on the access and success of students of color could substantially increase the overall pool of college graduates of color in the state.

“The 6-year black graduation rate has dropped off a cliff. Basically, the same amount of black students graduated from UW-Milwaukee as Madison East High School,” Braunginn says. “As a community-based school that highlights diversity, that has to improve. Not all of it is on UW-Milwaukee. We feel as an organization that supports investment in public institutions that it is paramount to the community that UW-Milwaukee has to be invested in and we put the resources to develop initiatives and to develop the access to continue to outreach to the community.

“UW-Milwaukee is a cornerstone in Wisconsin and its hurting right now and that means that are Wisconsin families are hurting,” he adds. “So it’s absolutely important that it is invested in to help bring a broad, brighter economic future for graduates and families.”