11/25/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
While so-called meritocracy is shutting the doors to higher education to black students in many states nationwide, Florida State University in Tallahassee is quietly paving a way for highly motivated black students to achieve who otherwise would be unable to attend a first-rate university.
The St. Petersburg Times reported on Monday that FSU has the highest black student six-year graduation rate in the nation. To wit: About 71 percent of FSU’s black students graduate within six years, exceeding the state average by 17 percent and the national average by 30 percent. In fact, mostly white FSU graduates more black students than historically black Florida A&M University across town.
Those of us who have been following such trends and keeping track of the programs being implemented nationwide to recruit and retain black students are not surprised. Through its Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, FSU has been doing almost everything right to nurture black students for several years.
Even before former Gov. Jeb Bush implemented One Florida in 1999, which ended affirmative action in college admissions, FSU was quietly finding ways to attract and keep black students through CARE.
Using real-life criteria, CARE accepts students from low-income families who are the first to attend college. Students are judged on traits such as their character, study habits, willingness to succeed and the motivation they showed in high school. Scores on the SAT are secondary.
Satisfying these criteria will get you into FSU, but they will not keep you there. Indeed, getting in is the easy part. After students are admitted, they must, for example, attend a six-week summer program on campus that introduces them to the rigors of academia. Counselors, mentors and administrators ferry the students around the city, and they try to obtain adequate financial aid for the students so they will not have to work too many hours.
Then the hard part starts: CARE students are required to study in the student union lab a minimum of eight hours a week. If their grades fall, they must put in more hours and improve. To assist them, they are given tutors and technicians who always are on duty and eager to serve.
History professor Fabian Tata coordinates the lab and, according to the Times, he meticulously tracks every hour students spend there. The payoff is that the retention rate for CARE students, 92 percent, is higher than that of other FSU freshmen, 88 percent.
The source of Tata’s success with his students is simple, as he told the Times: “We are hard on them. We make sure they realize what an opportunity this is.”
I spoke with two CARE students by telephone. One, a sophomore with a B grade-point average, said: “They gave me a chance to study at FSU, even though I made 961 on the SAT. The University of Florida wouldn’t even talk to me, and I didn’t want to go to FAMU. I’d stay in the lab 24-7 if they’d let me. This is the best thing that ever happened to me. I can’t let my family down.”
The other, a junior with a B+ grade-point average, said: “I’m tired all the time because I have to study so hard. I want to be an engineer, and you can’t be an engineer if you don’t work hard. If I had stayed in Fort Lauderdale, I would’ve been killed on Sistrunk Boulevard or something. Some of my classmates at Dillard used to laugh at me because I made good grades. I didn’t care. I want to make it so I can help my family. Dr. Tata is tough on us, but that’s what we need. If you want to lollygag, you’d better not get in the CARE program. You’d better be motivated.”
Although CARE is a great success story, I hope that it does not become a permanent, institutionalized crutch at FSU and at the state’s other universities. My hope is that black organizations, civic and otherwise, discover the wisdom of FSU’s tough love and start demanding that black students work hard and develop the kind of character and values that successful people worldwide exhibit.
This essential work should not be left to the universities alone. It is a shared responsibility.