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Desperately Seeking Students

Desperately Seeking Students
Several public flagships attempt to reverse disturbing declines in Black student college enrollment
By Lydia Lum

As high-school seniors begin to choose colleges in the coming months, officials at many public flagships nervously hope that their renewed outreach to Black students reverses steep and disappointing enrollment drops. Those declines, some of them by double-digit percentages, have caused extensive soul searching and near panic among academia’s leadership. While experts don’t blame any single reason for the numbers tanking in 2004, they agree that the occurrence has underscored the disturbing fact that the pool of high-achieving Black high schoolers remains too small.

Among the 2004 college-bound high-school graduates in the country, 110,000 of them who disclosed their ethnicities on their SATs scored a 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the standardized tests, according to the College Board. Of those, only 2,055 were Black.

Consequently, Ivy League, historically Black colleges, private universities and public institutions court these students as vigorously as football programs recruiting top high-school stars.

“This group is definitely highly sought after,” says Dr. Keith Marshall, assistant provost of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where 2004 Black freshmen enrollment fell 32 percent from the previous year. “That’s why the yield rates of Blacks at so many schools have always been so low. The most prestigious schools are fighting over these students, and if you’re the student, why not go to the best school making the best offer?”

Adds University of Michigan undergraduate admissions director Ted Spencer: “This pipeline of Black students isn’t growing. There needs to be more focus on K-12.”

Some say that students of color should do more to distinguish themselves to admissions officers. Over the past decade, personal essays have climbed in importance in student applications. Now, the essays rate right behind grades, standardized test scores and high-school curriculum when judging applicants, says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Public flagships “are making the admissions process more mechanical” by giving lots of weight to test scores and grade point averages in order to simply wade through the rising tides of applications overall, he says. That means a student’s personal story articulating what he would bring to an institution, as well as what he would gain there himself, is what can separate him from the rest of the pack. Consequently, counselors are encouraging high-school teachers to make students practice writing such essays, and then critique them before they are forced to write them for college applications and SATs.

“The holistic admissions process is important,” Hawkins says. “We need to make sure students aren’t swept under the rug.”

Young people apparently agree. A recent national survey of young adults ages 18 to 25 shows that substantial numbers, including 51 percent of Blacks, believe their high-school teachers and classes should have done more to prepare them for college-level work. More than half of those surveyed across all ethnicities by the Public Agenda research group report a shortage of counselors at their high schools, and nearly half say their counselors had given them so little time that they felt like they were merely another face in the crowd. But the survey indicates that 69 percent of Blacks hold themselves accountable, saying they could have worked harder in high school and paid more attention.

Additionally, about 74 percent of Blacks credit a high-school teacher for taking a personal interest in them and encouraging them to go to college.

So until greater numbers of Black students meet the public flagships’ admissions criteria, Spencer puts it this way: “We’re competing with the most selective schools for the same well, well, well-qualified students.”

And competing they are. While many of the minority recruiting methods and initiatives aren’t new among the flagships, officials have expanded and redoubled those efforts in hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2004. At schools such as Illinois, the sparse number of Black freshmen was even more surprising because a record number enrolled in 2003. In recent months, recruiters have been matching alumni with prospective students to help sell the school to the latter. And officials are reaching deeper into high-school ranks by hosting receptions for ninth-graders in Chicago “because by the time they’re seniors, it’s sometimes too late,” Marshall says.

A Missed Point?
At Michigan, first-year Black enrollment slid 15 percent from 2003 to last year, marking the third successive year of falling numbers. However, new records were set there in 2004 for total freshmen enrollment and overall university enrollment. The school has arguably drawn the most scrutiny among its peers because of the June 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing race to continue being used as an admissions factor.

Even though Michigan prevailed in that court case, Spencer believes some of the high-profile media coverage caused minorities and their families to doubt whether they were welcome there. “The point was somehow missed that race could still be considered in the admissions process.”

Last fall’s enrollment also may have been affected by the longer, more complex and possibly daunting applications hustled out in the wake of the high court’s decision. At the time, Michigan officials immediately scrambled to revise the application, run it past their lawyers and distribute it to students in time to meet the deadline. The result? A 25 percent drop in applications among Blacks a year ago, which foreshadowed the subsequent enrollment decline in the fall. School officials have since overhauled the application again to streamline it. Some changes were cosmetic. Others were substantive, such as eliminating one of the essay questions so that “it’s laid out better and looks much less threatening,” Spencer says.

“High-school counselors and teachers are now having an easier time grasping the application.”

Meanwhile, Michigan president Dr. Mary Sue Coleman has traveled to multiple Black churches in the state as a guest speaker, urging families to consider the school.

The final tally of 2005 applications to Michigan wasn’t known as of late last month, but early indications had numbers among all under-represented minorities about 14.4 percent higher than a year ago.

Elsewhere, a climate of cautious hope has settled in at major public universities. Under its early admissions cycle, the University of Georgia has more than doubled the number of Blacks accepted for the fall semester from a year ago. UGA went from recording its highest-ever Black freshmen enrollment in 2003 to a 26 percent drop in 2004. Officials there play down the drop, though, saying that in 2003, they enrolled an unusually large total freshmen class because of an unexpected spike in students picking UGA.

Like a lot of large flagships, UGA is growing more pro-active in offering prospective students a chance to visit campus, attend a class and stay overnight at a dorm. In addition to maintaining their full-time recruiters in Decatur and Tifton to mine the Black communities there, UGA also has been sending direct mail to minority, high-school sophomores to introduce the campus to them. So far, the response rate has been more than 300 percent higher than previous efforts with this demographic in years past. “This is a highly recruited cohort, but at least we’re in the battle now,” says J. Robert Spatig, senior associate director of admissions.

Of course, skyrocketing college costs in general cloud the picture. Public Agenda’s recent survey of young adults shows that financial constraints force many college-bound Blacks to compromise on where they attend. Sixty percent of Blacks surveyed say they would have chosen a different college if money hadn’t been an issue. At Penn State University, which has some of the highest, if not the highest tuition rates nationally, the 2004 sticker price jumped 7 percent from 2003.

That might have contributed to first-year Black enrollment slipping 6 percent at Penn State’s University Park campus in 2004, says Edwin Escalet, senior associate director for minority admissions and community affairs.
Yet officials there believe that outreach such as their annual recruiting programs at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre will convince Black students and their families how serious they are about diversity.

It helps, admissions experts say, whenever race can be considered in admissions. That could help stave off what has happened at the University of California. Its most selective institutions in Berkeley and Los Angeles have far fewer Black freshmen now than they did in 1995, when affirmative action was still used in admissions. However, Proposition 209, which Californians voted to pass in 1996, essentially dismantled state affirmative action programs based on gender or race. “Under-represented students are now less likely to accept their offer of admission,” a UC report states.

Preliminary data show that the numbers of Blacks applying to Berkeley and UCLA for the fall semester are running comparable to those in recent years, although the 10-school UC system is reporting a record 100,138 applications across all demographics.

Generating Mixed Feelings
One thing generating mixed feelings these days are “percentage plans” such as one in Texas, where state lawmakers in 1997 passed a measure granting automatic public university admission to Texans graduating in the top 10 percent of their high-school class. At the University of Texas, the numbers of Black freshmen in recent years have not come close to the levels they were in the mid-1990s before the reverse-discrimination Hopwood court case, which led UT to adopt race-blind admissions policies. Because of the ruling in the Michigan case though, UT, like many schools, now uses ethnicity as one of many factors in admissions. And lawmakers are considering modifying, or even tossing out the top 10 percent law. Among other things, critics say it has unfairly penalized students from the most competitive high schools; encouraged students from low-performing high schools to take the easiest classes; and severely limited the discretionary, individualized admissions that UT officials can make. At Texas A&M University, the state’s other flagship, race is not considered in admissions.  At UGA, officials are working to incorporate race as an admissions factor and to offer need-based scholarships while still complying with laws. The UGA president has appointed a permanent advisory committee to recommend ways of improving admissions policies. Committee chairman Dr. David Roberts, also a history professor, believes the current race-neutral policies are greater barriers to diversity than anything in daily campus life.

It seems educators everywhere want to see the number of Black students increase. “We have an interesting couple of years ahead of us,” says Marshall of Illinois. “We’ll see if this enrollment problem corrects itself nationally and who knows, maybe 2004 was just an anomaly.”

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