A Welcome Increase Outreach and diversity efforts appear to be paying off as some colleges and universities experience record minority student enrollments this fallBy Lydia LumAt a time when tuition is skyrocketing and many states are slashing higher education appropriations, Blacks and other students of color are enrolling at some of the nation’s colleges and universities in record numbers. In some cases, the numbers of minorities are setting records at not only state flagships, but also at regional universities. Obviously, school officials are pleased that outreach and diversity efforts are paying off. And in places where affirmative action has been banned in recent years, school officials are relieved that minorities are still giving them a chance. The University of Georgia (UGA), for instance, saw its enrollment of Black freshmen jump by 25 percent this year. The 273 Blacks, among 800 first-year minorities, mark an all-time high for the school. Yet for three years, the university has not used race as a factor in admissions or scholarships in response to anti-affirmative action litigation. “We’re just doing a better job getting out the message that we want the best and brightest here,” says J. Robert Spatig, senior associate director of admissions. So how did they do it? By stepping up recruiting. A year ago, UGA deans, vice presidents and senior faculty personally called high-school seniors and their families who had expressed interest in the university, encouraging them to enroll. Prospective students were gleaned from surveys, as well as from UGA recruiters who had visited their campuses. “It was the first time this kind of personal approach was tried here, and we’re about to do it again for fall 2004,” says Dr. Keith Parker, associate provost for institutional diversity. “Imagine the impact of getting a phone call from a faculty member who’s also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.”That effort went hand-in-hand with other campus initiatives. The university dispatched recruiters to the cities of Decatur and Tifton to increase its presence in Black communities and provide outreach full time. On campus, the UGA president established Parker’s office three years ago. Blacks and other minorities have assumed high-profile roles in student government. And student organizations have sponsored large-scale events and programs to encourage leadership among Black men. “There’s no better recruiting tool than the enthusiasm of minority students who are engaging in the overall life of the university,” Spatig says. New Mexico State University (NMSU) officials agree. A Hispanic-serving institution, the main campus in Las Cruces reports a record enrollment of 16,174 this year, and Hispanics make up about 45 percent of undergraduates.When NMSU recruiters travel to high schools, community events and churches, they usually take students with ties to those geographical areas who can solidify the sales pitch. “When we go out across the state and showcase what our students are doing here, it’s one of our best ways to draw new students to campus,” says Dr. Gladys DeNecochea, vice president for student services and dean of students. Rising Cost of EnrollmentNationally, full-time undergraduates are paying an average $4,600 for in-state tuition and fees at public universities this year, estimates Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). That’s $500 more than a year ago and a $850 increase from two years ago. Meanwhile, states have slashed their allocations for higher education by more than 4 percent this year to bridge deficits caused by shrinking government revenue. While the nation’s economic recovery remains anemic, lawmakers in many states have sacrificed higher education spending rather than make politically unpopular cuts to health care, prisons and public schools. “Higher ed has gotten to be on the ‘It’d be nice to do’ list rather than the ‘have to do’ list,” Reindl says. So in some states, lawmakers have deregulated tuition, sparking even higher tuition increases than the national average, as well as fears that education will soon be out of the reach of many students, especially minorities, if the schools themselves are allowed to determine the rates with no government cap. Educators are well aware of the risk. This year at Oklahoma State University (OSU), in-state undergraduates pay more than $3,800 in tuition and fees. Last year, they paid only $3,024. “This is not the best of circumstances, but they’re what we’re in,” says Dr. Michael Heintze, OSU vice president for enrollment management and marketing. So far, though, students are still choosing the school in droves. A record 21,113 enrolled at the Stillwater campus this fall. That includes a 26 percent increase in Black freshmen and a 13 percent increase in Hispanics. While this fall semester’s figures were still being collected at press time, educators estimate that financial-aid applications are up by 10 percent from a year ago. During academic year 2002-2003, more than $90 billion in loans, grants and work-study aid were distributed to college students across the country, according to the College Board. More than half of all students received financial aid, and more than half of that aid came from loans. Generally, Blacks are more likely to receive financial aid than Whites, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). While the amounts of that aid are typically lower than that of Whites, a higher proportion of Blacks attend less expensive community colleges than they do four-year institutions, NASFAA officials say.This year’s spike in minority enrollment at some public universities follows increases in their college-going rates across the country from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. During that time, undergraduate enrollment among Blacks at four-year universities rose 18 percent, while White enrollment declined by 10 percent. Meanwhile, Hispanic enrollment jumped 45 percent, Asian 40 percent and American Indian 39 percent. In fact, minorities have accounted for virtually all of the enrollment growth nationally over the past 20 years, as their numbers have swelled to more than 4.3 million, a 122 percent gain since the early 1980s, according to the American Council on Education. Also in the past 20 years, minorities outpaced Whites in the rate of growth in academic degrees earned. In states such as Texas and California, where court battles and ballot initiatives eliminated affirmative action from college admissions several years ago, universities have expanded their outreach into urban and rural high schools they hadn’t previously tapped for students. Universities there also are working closer with community-college officials to assure more seamless student transitions into four-year institutions, says Heather Wathington of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Success doesn’t occur overnight, of course. After overall enrollment dropped in the 1990s at Eastern Kentucky University, officials embarked on intense efforts not only to rebuild but to improve its ethnic diversity. School officials increased its marketing of academic programs such as criminal justice, environmental health and forensic science, which are offered at a limited number of campuses nationally.Diversity officers were hired. An African American studies program was established. Black sororities and fraternities were rebuilt. The efforts paid off. This fall’s freshman class boasts a 20 percent increase in the number of Blacks. And overall student enrollment is now 13,700, an 8 percent increase from three years ago.“We’ve stopped the bleeding by building holistically,” says Dr. Aaron Thompson, associate vice president for academic affairs. Beyond race, much of the student body demographics remains anecdotal. Thompson estimates that more than half of Eastern Kentucky students are the first in their family to attend college and that more than 90 percent of current freshmen rely on financial aid to afford this year’s $2,798 tuition and fees. At New Mexico State, DeNecochea says that while there are still substantial numbers of first-generation college-goers, a growing number of students, including Hispanics, have parents or grandparents who are NMSU alumni. But all this begs questions about the quality of education. For higher price tags, what are students getting? Despite increased access for minorities, what are they actually accessing? The University of Kentucky’s record enrollment of 35,052 this year, which includes a 30 percent increase in Black freshmen, has filled dorm rooms to capacity. Construction of more residence halls has begun, with openings scheduled for 2005. And while a summer program letting freshmen enroll early has proven popular, educators are leery of letting it swell so large that it defeats the purpose of young people getting a better chance to adjust to college life. Back at the University of Georgia, the campus has hit its cap of 32,500 students for the past three years and turns away plenty of qualified applicants. Elsewhere, other large universities are debating what best serves the public: Cap enrollment rather than risk compromising quality? Or is it better to maximize access rather than risk excluding the masses? There are no easy answers. What is more certain is that with more children of baby boomers and recent immigrants in the educational pipeline, the number of college students is expected to continue growing nationally. “The collision between demand and available supply of resources isn’t going away,” says Reindl of AASCU.
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