Black enrollment: a new challenge

The Grand Rapids Press
Monday, December 06, 2004

The U.S. Supreme Court last year gave the University of Michigan a clear path toward racial affirmative action. So why, this year, did the number of black freshmen at the school hit a 15-year low?

The drop should spark concern, and not just in Ann Arbor. Other institutions across the country -- including Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University -- saw decreases in the number of black freshmen.

One year does not a trend make, of course. This could be a blip. The reasons for the drop-off are not altogether clear.

Still, the figures lay down a challenge for educators at universities, high schools and even elemetary schools. Increasing the black population at universities is a matter of careful planning, energetic recruitment and a deliberate admissions process that seeks out qualified African-American students.

The work begins long before fall semester applications arrive. The pool of qualified black students is too small and has to grow. Universities should seek creative ways to prepare young black men and women for higher education, from aiding them with applications, to helping schools, public and private, to turn out well-educated, college-ready youngsters.

U-M's drop in black enrollment could reflect controversy -- and misperception -- surrounding last year's high court case. The high court upheld the U-M Law School's consideration of race on an individual basis but, at the undergraduate level, tossed out the university's racial point system for being equivalent to a quota. The system assigned points to applicants based on race, along with points for various other attributes.

The university now considers undergraduate applicants -- like those at the law school -- as people, not points. Admissions hinge on recommendations from teachers and counselors, as well as applicant essays, test scores, grades and other factors.

The numbers of black students at U-M this fall does not make this system look successful. The school saw a 25 percent drop in applications by blacks, and a 15 percent drop in the number of black freshmen admitted, which this year was 350 in a class of 5,730. Over-all enrollment grew, and Hispanic enrollment increased.

U-M isn't alone. Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all lost black freshmen population. MSU is slightly down, off 3.3 percent from the previous year. GVSU saw a 21.5 percent drop in black freshmen -- down to 157 from 200.

The importance of diversity to a university community, and to economically disadvantaged minorities, is beyond dispute. The question is about effective and constitutional methods.

U-M is already evaluating its admissions process. The drop in applicants alone is telling. Were black students repelled by the controversy surrounding U-M's court case, and did they apply elsewhere as a result? Is the new enrollment process more challenging and somehow off-putting? The cost of college, the availability of needs-based financial aid and programs to reach out to black students across the country all play into the numbers.

So does K-12 education. The number of black students who score well on standardized exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test is relatively small, creating fierce competition for these youngsters among top-tier universities. Are higher education institutions establishing charter schools in places where black students live to try to broaden that pool? Are they assuring black applicants that they will find help in paying for increasingly high tuition?

Texas saw a rise in the number of black students because the state, where a court case outlawed affirmative action, guarantees high school seniors at the top 10 percent of their class admission to a state university. That gives students at heavily minority high schools a leg up. That method deserves serious debate, at least.

Universities presidents should be huddling already to address the problem with black enrollment and brainstorm long-term solutions. Thoughtful planning can increase the likelihood that this year's numbers are an anomaly, and not part of a spiraling trend.