STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Wayne State University has a problem. Few students who enter the Detroit school earn a degree. Until recently, only about a quarter of Wayne State freshmen could be assured of a degree within six years - the worst rate in America. Michigan Radio's Bryce Huffman reports on how that number has since improved.
BRYCE HUFFMAN, BYLINE: If all goes well, India Pleasant will graduate three years from now from Wayne State University in Detroit with her bachelor's degree in criminal justice. But like a lot of nontraditional students, that's just one of many, many things on her plate right now.
INDIA PLEASANT: I wake up around, like, 5 o'clock a.m. I get my little brother ready for school. I take him to school every morning, start studying since I'm up so early. And I go to my classes because I have early classes. Usually, my classes end about 1-ish or 2:15-ish. Then I come to Southfield to go to my old high school, where I coach step team, which is step practice - usually every day. After I do that, I leave. Most days, I go straight to work at Masonic Temple/Fox Theater. I go shopping for my mom often because she's - works and she can't do it herself.
HUFFMAN: And on top of all that, she's a full-time student with 15 credit hours. She has to help her brother with his homework, sometimes cook dinner and she has to do her own homework and get ready for class the next day. For the longest time, students like India weren't likely to graduate from Wayne State. In 2011, only 9% of African American students were graduating in six years. For students whose parents didn't go to college, only 18% were making it. All over the country, there are huge discrepancies in completion rates, especially when you look at race and family income. So many students like India are juggling outside obligations.
ALICIA ORTEZ: They're not just necessarily students getting up, coming from the residence hall, work, going to class, you know, finding time for homework. And that's all they do.
ORTEZ: That's Alicia Ortez, an adviser on campus. She's one of many that Wayne State has hired in a huge push to raise its graduation rates. Unlike advisors of a different era, she sees her job as a lot more than just talking to students about tuition and financial aid. When students are struggling in class, her big question is...
ORTEZ: Well, why? Let's try to get that person connected so that we can figure out what's going on so that they can do their best.
HUFFMAN: The advisers are part of a broad strategy at Wayne State. There are scholarships. India got one. There are new study requirements and a summer bridge program that help students stay on track. And all of this is beginning to pay off. Last year, the six-year completion rate for all students was 47%. And for first-generation students, it's up to 37%. And now 22% of African Americans at Wayne get their degree. Wayne State has made progress but not enough.
MONICA BROCKMEYER: We at Wayne State have, still, large educational disparities around race ethnicity, around income status, around first generation.
HUFFMAN: This is Monica Brockmeyer. She's the senior associate provost for student success at Wayne State. She says they set a goal of getting 50% of their students to graduate from Wayne in six years.
BROCKMEYER: We set that goal because, at the time, it seemed like a really kind of, even, unimaginably attainable goal.
HUFFMAN: But now that they're close to 50...
BROCKMEYER: I think we're going to hit it this year, early in 2019 or be very, very close.
HUFFMAN: I asked India how she manages her crazy schedule and still keeps her grades up.
PLEASANT: I go to church. I tell myself, as long as I can make it to Sunday. I give myself little treats. I say, girl, you're going to get a cookie if you make it through the day.
HUFFMAN: So does she expect to walk across the graduation stage in 2022?
PLEASANT: Yes. You can expect me to walk across the stage with a cap and a gown and a Wayne State button that the provost gave me.
HUFFMAN: For NPR News, I'm Bryce Huffman in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.