This past June marked the end of my five-year undergraduate career at the University of Washington. But what does it really mean for a person of color to graduate from higher education? What does education mean in terms of access? More importantly, what does education mean for communities of color?
The key to answering these questions lies hidden in the numbers we use (and don’t use) to track students’ progress.
According to statistics gathered on the UW freshman class of 2012, 93 percent of freshmen return for their sophomore year. This number is vague and limited. It doesn’t tell you the breakdown of students of color. It doesn’t tell you about students who are first generation. It doesn’t tell you about students who are low income. The 93 percent does not begin to explain the 7 percent that did not return or whether or not this 93 percent will graduate.
Looking back at this number after graduating, I’m reminded of the moments where I was close to becoming a part of that 7 percent. I was the first person in my family to attend college. After my first year, I wanted to drop out.
I felt pressure from the financial burden that was placed on my family. I wanted to drop out because I felt like I did not belong. Very few students that I met in my first few years at the UW shared my experience. Even fewer professors and staff shared my reality. It became clear to me that UW is not made for students of color.
The “6 Year Graduation Data” compiled by the UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity for the incoming class of 2007, which had up until 2013 to graduate, reveals that the overall rate for completing a degree within six years is 81.4 percent. For Asians, the aggregated number is 83.2 percent. This figure is misleading because it treats all Asians as one homogenous group and does not take into account the differences among the diverse Asian ethnicities. A closer look reveals the rate for completing a degree within six years is 78.4 percent for Filipinos and 63.9 percent for Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, for example.
Furthermore, for those Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who are low income or are first generation to attend university, the success rate of completing a degree within six years drops to 50 percent.
Here’s another way to look at those same numbers.
In an incoming class at UW, 0.6 to 0.9 percent of the class will be Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. Of the 0.6 to 0.9 percent of Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, only half will graduate within six years. In other words, of the incoming class, 0.3 to 0.45 percent are Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who will graduate.
What is it for a person of color to be in a university? An accomplishment.
What is it for a student of color to graduate from a university? A triumph.
Institutions of learning were never meant to educate racialized bodies, but rather compromise and ignore our experiences, histories, and knowledge. It is evident in the curriculum taught in grade school. It is evident in the stagnant diversity on campus. It is evident in the dropout rates of students of color.
And yes, education is the greatest equalizer that society has to offer. But what is education? Education is a transformative process in acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is neutral, it is neither good nor bad, these are labels. Only when power is applied and manifested can it be evaluated as a positive or negative.
As a college graduate, and to all those who graduated this past year or years ago, graduation is not the finish line for social change or justice. Graduation is part of the journey. If anything, as graduates we must recognize our own privilege and take the increased responsibility to our communities.
There is a need. We don’t need more Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Chicano, and Indian experts. What we need are more expert Blacks, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Chicanos, and Indians. We need more knowledgeable people of color. Graduating does not mean we are successful if our communities and peoples continue to struggle.