The University Record, February 25, 1997

Increased mentoring, advising gets results for grad students

Joel N. Bregman, professor of astronomy (left), examines a telescope with Beth Brown, a graduate student in astronomy.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services


The academic performance of minority graduate students at the U-M has improved significantly in the last decade, primarily because of better mentoring and advising and a campuswide climate more conducive to racial and ethnic diversity, says a University researcher.

In his study tracking the academic progress of U-M doctoral students from 1975 to 1992, Warren Whatley, professor of economics and of Afroamerican and African studies, found that before 1986 students of color achieved doctoral candidacy only 65 percent of the time, while after 1986 the success rate climbed to 73 percent. The success rate for white doctoral students stayed at approximately 70 percent.

Better GRE scores and financial support, he says, do not explain the improvement; rather, it is explained by changes in the climate for graduate students of color at Michigan. The Rackham Merit Fellowship Program---one of the largest minority fellowship programs in the nation---began to focus greater attention on academic advising and mentoring for students of color, and the Michigan Mandate increased the diversity of the faculty, students and staff, making the educational experience at Michigan more edifying.

"Thoughtful advice and mentorship turn a formal offer to learn---admission---into a real opportunity to learn, and it appears that the University of Michigan began to offer minority students these kinds of real opportunities with greater frequency around 1987," says Whatley, who is former associate dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

"It also appears that the minority students at Michigan responded to these opportunities with some impressive achievements of their own."

Prior to this time, he says, many minority graduate students, most of whom are Rackham Merit Fellows, were often overlooked by their respective departments because most were receiving financial support from Rackham.

But programmatic changes in the Rackham Merit Fellowship Program improved the integration of minority students into mentoring and advising activities, Whatley says.

Most importantly, he adds, Rackham required faculty to meet with Merit Fellows to evaluate and discuss their academic progress before any additional semesters of a student's fellowship would be granted. In addition, Rackham Fellows could no longer expect more than 10 terms of support and all had to achieve candidacy before they could use the last two-and-a-half semesters of their fellowship.

"Faculty and staff now had a greater incentive to seek out Rackham Merit Fellows, to monitor their progress and to advise them on their courses of study," Whatley says. "Likewise, Rackham Merit Fellows had a greater incentive to seek advice on how to achieve candidacy quickly and on how to compete successfully for departmental support.

"Students and faculty began to interact with greater frequency, both inside and outside the classroom, with all the implications this increased activity has for the integration of students into the academic, intellectual and social life of departments."

Whatley shows that a commonly held perception that Rackham Merit Fellows are better-funded than non-minority students is not true. Students of color may face less funding uncertainty than other graduate students, but they do not receive more money, he says.

"Guaranteed multi-year support has opened the door for some minority students," he says. "Without it, there would be fewer spaces made available for them to show that they can cut it. From here, we make progress not by reducing our commitment to this program but by extending its basic features to meet the needs of all our students."

His study also shows that improved performance of minority graduate students coincided with the introduction of the Michigan Mandate---a bold vision to make the U-M a national and world leader in the racial and ethnic diversity of its faculty, students and staff.

"The University of Michigan became more diverse after the Michigan Mandate was announced, and the successes of the Rackham Merit Fellowship Program are part of this larger achievement," Whatley says. "The opportunities for minority students to mingle and debate with students and faculty of similar social backgrounds and experiences could not have hurt minority students' chances of succeeding, and very likely improved them tremendously.

"Increases in the ethnic, racial and gender diversity of the faculty and staff helped as well, creating more opportunities for minority students to pursue intellectual interests that are sometimes different from traditional academic concerns."

Whatley adds that despite progress, minority student representation still remains a serious challenge in many fields, and "the diversity of the faculty is still very thin, so much so that a few clustered departures can leave large numbers of minority students without a minority faculty in their midst."

He also notes that the study ended in 1992 and cannot capture changes since then in performance, climate and financial aid.