Raising Tough Questions About Enrollment Diversity

I recently delivered a keynote speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 2009 Diversity Forum during which I afflicted the comfortable on the question of “excellence vs. diversity” in college and university admissions.  At that speech, I encouraged a generally receptive campus community to think broadly about the declining number of Black students enrolling in colleges and universities.


As I deliver speeches about the climate for campus diversity internationally I have begun to think more critically about the admissions process and the rapidly declining number of Black students in the admissions pool.


For purposes of this post, I will focus on the admissions of Black students at historically White institutions. I think that there is room for debate on whether the criteria used in making admissions decisions should be re-examined. And to the extent that colleges and universities make decisions to admit students who do not fit their admissions criteria, the time to worry about retention is at the time that the decision to admit such students is made, not after the students have arrived on campus.


A recent DiverseEducation.com news article by Arelis Hernandez put the problem in focus. The story, “First-year Black Student Enrollment Drop Raises Diversity Concerns at the University of Maryland,” stated that “Among first-year students, African-Americans experienced a 28 percent drop in the number of enrollees. The drop is from 539 in 2008 to 387 in 2009, according to UMCP data”. 


Of course, race alone does not explain this data. Said University of Maryland admissions director Shannon Gundy: “From anecdotal conversations with students, we know the economy played a role. Certain conditions were exacerbated in the African-American population.” He added that the financial aid office worked weekend hours to deal with the volume of requests. “The process was also one of the problems; African-Americans were completing the application process at lower rates than other students,” according to Gundy. The article discusses a number of factors including the economic turmoil that may have contributed to the decline in Black enrollees at the University of Maryland-College Park (UMCP).


The process of deciding which student to admit to a college or university is complex and multidimensional. I wonder whether those colleges and universities that heavily emphasize standardized test scores are using criteria that will ultimately predict success or whether they are simply relying on such scores because they have always done so and it is the easiest thing to do. My critics will no doubt say that I am arguing that standardized test scores should be eliminated because Blacks on average are the least competitive racial/ethnic group in test score performance while seeking admission to the most selective schools.


As usual, my critics are wrong. What I am saying is that it is time for colleges and universities to look seriously (and not simply refer this to a faculty study committee) at whether standardized test scores and an overemphasis on them tell us, for example, if  the students they admit are able to think critically. In my interaction with students across the United States, I am shocked at how many of them have been admitted to selective undergraduate institutions and are unable to think critically.


For example, I recently gave a lecture in which I put images on a screen and asked students to explain whether there were substantive differences in the images. Many of the students responded that the images were different because they were different. What they were unable to do was to respond critically on how different images can and do present the same message. Their focus was on the obvious rather than substantive and contextual differences.


The article about UMCP raises the question whether institutions, which see declines among Blacks completing their admission applications, should re-examine their admissions processes. I wonder if White students were being admitted at a much lower rate than Blacks, or completed  the application process at a much lower rate than Blacks, would colleges and universities so easily dismiss the problem as one of lack of interest, skill or qualification as so many of them do in the case of Black students. The reality is that there is room for debate as to the role that race plays in the criteria that is being used by many colleges and universities in the admissions process.


Again, my critics will be wrong when they claim that I am saying that racism explains the problem. This is not at all what I am saying. I am saying that if we believe that education is the great equalizer then we ought to be willing to examine what role race plays in admissions. This would, of course, mean that we would have to examine the anti-intellectual trend that has infected many in the pool of potential Black applicants.


I am a proponent of diversity in admissions. However, I am increasingly concerned that too many colleges and universities that rely on narrow admissions criteria are more interested in admitting Black students to be seen as “diverse” and less interested in the retention and graduation rates of those Black students. If colleges and universities are going to admit students who do not meet their admissions criteria, and thus their pre-defined model of “success”, then they must also ensure that they are willing and able to support these students.  Some will no doubt argue that I am advocating for the admission of Black students solely because they are Black and also arguing that Blacks should be given additional support in order to succeed because they were not qualified to be admitted in the first place. They, too, would be wrong.


I am writing about the reality, whether people choose to admit it or not, that too many colleges and universities admit Black students as a part of a misguided attempt at diversity, and then stand back and watch as some of these students fail. Finally, for those colleges and universities that admit Black students solely because of their race, this does not demonstrate a commitment to diversity; it does, however, demonstrate a commitment to institutional oppression and bigotry.