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Georgia Tech Sees ‘Room for Progress’ After Half Century of Integration

Half a century ago, 17-year-old Ralph A. Long Jr. made history as one of the first Black students to integrate the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology.

Today, the technology specialist, now 68, can’t help but reflect on the 125-year-old school’s evolution from being one of the last bastions of White privilege to becoming an institutional leader in the number of engineering degrees conferred upon Black students.

“Georgia Tech was non-existent,” Long recalls of the school’s former inaccessibility to Black students. Faced with numerous obstacles at the school, Long transferred. “But now,” he says, “you have thousands of students who have graduated from there. Georgia Tech has proven for Black kids to become part of their educational mainstream.”

Georgia Tech opened its doors to Black students in 1961, the first public university in the Deep South to integrate without being forced to do so via court order. Compared to many other Southern universities, Georgia Tech’s integration occurred in relative peace. In the years since, the school has gone from serving just a few dozen Black students to more than 1,100 per year every year since 1995.

The institution ranks second among schools awarding the most bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans, and third awarding bachelor’s to all minorities, according to Diverse’s Top 100 degree producers ranking for 2010.

Non-White students as a whole currently constitute nearly half the 20,720-person student body. The numbers of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander populations have more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 411 and 1,157, respectively, in 1995 to 954 and 2,898, respectively, in 2010.

As the complexion of the student body has changed, so has the way in which demographics and equity at institutions of higher learning are viewed and discussed.

During Long’s time on the campus, changing the status quo was discussed in terms of desegregation and integration. Today, as the U.S. moves toward becoming a “majority-minority” nation, the conversation is cast in terms of diversity and inclusion. Increasingly, emphasis is being placed on  reaching out to those whose access is limited by circumstance rather than race and gender.

“That will substantially alter forever the course of history for this country in the sense that no longer will one group be as predominant and in other ways advantaged by circumstance of history in access to higher education,” says Dr. Archie Ervin, the newly appointed inaugural vice president for institute diversity at Georgia Tech. “It will become more of an issue of equity in terms of access to and benefit from, particularly at public education institutions.”

“We don’t feel like we should be complacent,” adds Dr. Gary S. May, chairman of Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and head of the 50th Anniversary for the Matriculation of Black Students at Georgia Tech Planning Committee.

“We’re happy with the progress we made but there’s certainly more room for progress,” he says.

Indeed, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, while the number of Black students at Georgia Tech has grown over the years, it tapered off at 1,100 and has remained so every year since 1995. Meanwhile, the student population has increased from just more than 13,000 in 1995 to nearly 21,000 today, meaning the actual percentage of Black students has been in steady decline.

It’s a trend both diversity leaders and Black alumni are trying to reverse.

For instance, Ervin touts the G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise Program — a program meant to cover the unmet college costs of Georgia students whose families have an annual income of less than $33,300.

Also, for the 50th Anniversary of the Matriculation of Black Students at Georgia Tech, the Georgia Tech Black Alumni Organization is trying to create a $2 million scholarship endowment by June 30 to support efforts to recruit and retain Black students.

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