Diversity Still Matters in Michigan

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by Reginald Stuart

It has been almost five years since Michigan voters chose to ban race-conscious programs from state-funded institutions. The impact of the decision was swift and painful for many, particularly in the state’s public higher education landscape. Minority enrollment in public colleges, which was already low, plummeted in many categories as state-funded minority scholarships disappeared and a bad economy made alternative funds scarce. Programs and services that were targeted solely toward minorities and women vanished.

Today, however, there are some signs of hope for minorities hoping to access higher education in Michigan. Five years after the racially polarizing campaign to pass the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative—widely known as Proposition 2—the state’s public colleges and universities are learning how to adapt to a colorblind campus.

From the University of Michigan to Grand Valley State University, Michigan schools are reinventing their recruiting programs and creating new scholarships aimed at low-income and narrowly defined demographic groups. They also are redesigning resource programs to make them more inclusive. Meanwhile, private donors and foundations are beginning to fill part of the financial aid void created by the loss of state-supported scholarships.

In a post-Prop 2 world, Michigan’s public institutions have been forced to get more creative when it comes to luring Blacks, Hispanics and members of underrepresented groups to their campuses. There are bolstered information campaigns aimed at low-income, urban and first-generation college prospects. School officials are quick to assure prospective students that, even without state-funded targeted scholarships, financial aid is available.

“Proposition 2 raised a lot of interesting questions,” says Paulette Granberry Russell, senior adviser for diversity to the president of Michigan State University. “It forced us to think, not about how to get around the law, because that’s not what this is. It forced us to look at our practices and see if those practices were helping us achieve the desired goal of having a diverse campus. You have to be a little more deliberate and strategic about where you focus your resources.”

For MSU—where minorities comprise 19 percent of the student body—that meant undertaking a more geo-centric rather than race-centric approach. The university sought out students in urban centers, low-income areas and in rural communities, for example.

At the University of Michigan, whose race-based admissions policy was the flashpoint for Proposition 2, previously minority-only scholarships and programs have been opened to a wider population. However, by carefully tailoring the eligibility requirements, UM largely has managed to circumvent the ban. For example, a scholarship is aimed at students from the Detroit public school system, which is overwhelmingly Black. Although non-minorities are eligible and have won the award in the past, the demographic disparity creates a very high probability that the recipient will be Black.

While UM’s overall minority enrollment has remained relatively stable since the passage of Proposition 2, Black enrollment has suffered a noticeable decline. In the fall of 2007, the first full year under the ban, Black enrollment at the school fell 3.3 percent, to 2,407 students. Last fall, there were only 1,777 Blacks in the school. No other ethnic group at UM has seen such a precipitous drop. Hispanic enrollment, for example, has remained almost unchanged since 2007, and there are only 200 fewer Asians on campus today than there were in fall 2006.

The same cannot be said at UM’s law school, however. While its overall enrollment has fallen by only 24 students between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2010, Black enrollment has fallen by more than 50 percent, to 32 students last fall from 72 in the fall of 2007, according to the school’s Office of the Registrar. Asian enrollment has dropped to 119 students from 152 based on the fall enrollment of both years, while Hispanic enrollment slipped to 47 from 65 and American Indian enrollment dropped to five from 27.

In the fall of 2010, White enrollment, on the other hand, was 774 compared to 660 in 2007.

One UM law school official says, though the drop in minority enrollment has not been excessive, “any decline is a significant decline.”

Some educators and education analysts say it has been difficult to determine with confidence how much of the enrollment declines reflect the lingering impact of Proposition 2 and how much can be attributed to a foundering economy that struck Michigan harder than almost any other state.

“We met the perfect storm on election day,” says Lynn Blue, vice provost and dean of academic services and information technology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. “It was totally devastating.”

Despite the enrollment declines, public higher education officials across the state say they are relieved Proposition 2 did not have the impact in Michigan that a similar constitutional amendment had in California nearly two decades ago. The top schools in that state, particularly law schools, saw wholesale drops in enrollment after the ballot initiative passed there.

Officials in Michigan say that before and after Proposition 2 was passed, they consulted regularly with their counterparts in California and Washington state, which passed its own initiative in 1998. The major lesson they say they learned: sweeping laws like Proposition 2 are damaging, but survivable.

“I have to affirm the creativity of those universities that are working within the law,” says Eric K. Foster, director of the Imagine Fund, a private scholarship foundation for Michigan’s minority students. With seed money from the Michigan-based Kellogg Foundation, the Imagine Fund was started to counter the effects of Proposition 2.

“The state’s public colleges have slowly rebounded and are finding some slight uptick, rebounding to their pre-Proposition 2 levels,” says Foster.

In the wake of Proposition 2, Grand Valley State was forced to abandon its signature Bert Price scholarship, which provided full tuition awards for minorities and women.Today, the school offers an array of scholarships and programs aimed at underrepresented students. It also has started new programs aimed at inner-city high school students and students likely to be first-generation college students.

A long-running program that brings high school students and their parents to Grand Valley State from distant Detroit has remained unchanged. But rather than describing it as a Black student recruitment effort, the school classifies the program as an effort to reach first-generation and low-income students.

“The need’s still there,” says Blue.

Private supporters of diversity in Michigan higher education also have begun to step to the plate, says Foster, pointing to the Imagine Fund as an example.

The fund gives scholarships to minority students like 21-year-old Jessica Young, a senior at Grand Valley State who had been receiving the Bert Price scholarship. She says she was able to attend Grand Valley only with the help of the scholarship, Pell Grants and other loans. Had the Imagine Fund not stepped in to fill the financial gap, Young, like many other minority students, may have had to forgo her education. She points a finger directly at Proposition 2.

“It was certainly detrimental because there weren’t that many minorities in college in the beginning,” she says. “Because of Prop 2 people are looking at other options.”

Young, who hopes to eventually work in nonprofit management, expects to be the first in her family to graduate from college. Even with the aid, she says she will owe $40,000 in student loans.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” says Russell at MSU. “Until we are prepared to do the hard work of preparing, not just being creative about how we recruit, how we’re going to support our students financially once they are on campus, then Proposition 2, or initiatives like Prop 2, can set you back.

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