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A One-year Jump in Diversity Comes Only After Many Years’ Effort

A One-year Jump in Diversity Comes Only After Many Years’ Effort


Nicole Hernandez arrived at Syracuse University recently for freshman orientation, but she already knew the place well. She spent two summers here during high school in a program that gave her college credit, and a program in her New Jersey school district has close ties to the university.

“I feel pretty comfortable,” said Hernandez, who said her earlier time here inspired her to work hard to get here for college.

It generally takes decades for student body profiles to change significantly. But Hernandez, who is Hispanic, is part of a freshman class at Syracuse that looks noticeably different from that of even a year ago. The class of 2009 is nearly 24 percent students of color, up from 17 percent for last year’s freshman class.

It’s a surprising jump, considering last year’s incoming class looked essentially the same as a decade ago. School officials say it is the fruit of years of hard, expensive work on recruiting and retaining minority students.

“I think the jump we saw this year is the happy coming together of seeds planted deliberately over quite some time,” said Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who is starting her second year here.

Cantor was previously provost at the University of Michigan, the school at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling on affirmative action. The court ruled that race could be used as a “plus factor” in admissions to help colleges diversify their campuses. But there were limitations, and affirmative action is useless if minority students don’t apply.

The sharp one-year jump at Syracuse could attract attention from other schools trying to figure out how to increase their pool of minority applicants — especially because Syracuse has proven it can both bring minority students to campus and make sure they graduate.

As recently as the early 1990s, only about 63 percent of the school’s students graduated and the minority rate was 20 points lower than that. Now the rate is about 80 percent overall, 75 percent for minorities.

Nationally, the six-year graduation rate for students starting school in 1995-96 was just 63 percent, according to a recent report by The Education Trust. For Latino students it was just 47 percent and black students just 46 percent.

But the Education Trust report also emphasized that concerted, focused efforts to keep students from dropping out can make a difference. A follow-up issued in January singled out several schools with graduation rates better than their peers, including Syracuse.

When it comes to specifics, the lesson at Syracuse is that progress comes only gradually, costing money and effort.

“I don’t think it’s A or B or C,” said Vice President of Enrollment Management David Smith. “It’s A through Z.”

— Associated Press

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