Opening the Schoolhouse Door - Higher Education

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Opening the Schoolhouse Door

by Black Issues

Opening the Schoolhouse Door

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past decade about the recruitment and retention of African American students. The intensity, if not the frequency, of these conversations has been increased by the national debate on affirmative action and recent attacks on the use of affirmative action in college admissions.
At The University of Alabama, we have been very successful in improving the recruitment and retention of African American students without resorting to race as a factor in admission decisions. Our recruitment efforts have yielded an increase in our Black first-time freshman enrollment that is precisely 10 times higher than the average of our sister institutions. During the period 1993 to 2000, our enrollment of Black first-time freshmen increased 34 percent from 11.2 percent to 15 percent. For the same period, our 29 peer institutions in the Southern University Group reported that their Black first-time freshmen enrollment grew only 3.4 percent. 
Several factors contributed to this tenfold difference. First, the recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty has a synergistic relationship. We believe that the recruitment of minority students and faculty must proceed in tandem, and that the success of one is at least partially dependent upon the other. During the 1996-97 academic year, we launched a minority faculty recruitment program that has yielded good results. And as our student enrollment increased, our full-time Black faculty grew 39 percent, from 31 in 1996 to 43 in 2001.
Second, our African American students actively recruit at historically Black high schools in the surrounding community. Their efforts with the high school students are often more effective than those of older university employees, irrespective of their race. In addition, the university president visits these historically Black high schools, inviting students to enroll at The University of Alabama. Often the president is the first of any higher education institution to visit these schools.
Third, we are making considerable progress in discussing issues of race with greater candor. Even though we have much work to do in dealing with racism, we have had several town hall meetings and numerous public lectures, as well as intensive university-wide workshops addressing the topic. We have also established a formal alliance with Stillman College, a neighboring historically Black institution.
In addition to our recruitment gains, we are also making considerable headway in the retention of Black first-time freshmen, which is consistently higher than for White first-time freshmen. Between 1993-99, the retention rate for Black first-time freshman averaged 88 percent compared with 81 percent for Whites. Comparable figures for the Southern University Group institutions are 84 percent for Blacks and 85 percent for Whites. The higher retention rates for our African American students extend into their second year, with 77 percent of Black first-time freshman and 72 percent of White first-time freshman retained after completing their sophomore year.
Contrary to reports from our peer institutions, African American students have the potential to succeed relative to Whites in a large, complex, and selective research university like The University of Alabama. Given the stereotype accorded our university as the place of Governor Wallace’s 1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door,” attempting to prevent the enrollment of Black students, this is all the more remarkable. We still need to improve parity in graduation rates as well as faculty and student recruitment and retention. But we are determined to achieve these goals.  
— Dr. Andrew A. Sorensen is president of The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

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