Schools view state law in recruiting minorities

December 1, 2008
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By reaching out to students in high schools that serve areas with a high population of minorities, West Michigan public universities are trying to encourage minority enrollment within the new rules of a law approved by voters in 2006.

Western Michigan University invited prospective students to watch its football team take on the Big Ten’s University of Illinois at Ford Field in Detroit, the capstone of a week of activities. Ferris State University has an admissions representative stationed in the Detroit suburb of Southfield. And Grand Valley State University revs up buses to bring students from “underrepresented” high schools to see its Ottawa County campus.

“We have been trying to be systematic and careful to make sure our efforts to reach out are indeed compliant with Proposal 2,” said Keith Hearit, WMU’s vice provost for enrollment management.

Passed by voters in November 2006, the proposal banned the practice of preferential treatment based on race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin in public education, employment and contracting. One effect of the law was to prevent universities from handing out scholarships based on those factors, a major recruiting tool. 

Because of the election’s timing, Michigan’s 15 public universities had already extended admissions and financial aid offers for the 2007-08 academic year by the time the law went into effect. That means the current academic year, 2008-09, is the first to reveal the full effects of the voters’ decision.

While GVSU this fall recorded a sharp drop in the number of minority freshmen, total minority enrollment slipped only slightly. WMU and FSU posted steady numbers, as well.

GVSU, which attracts thousands of students from Kent and Ottawa counties to its campuses in Allendale and downtown Grand Rapids, dropped from its highest proportion of minority freshmen in the past five years in 2007 to the lowest proportion in 2008.

Of the 3,938 students attending college for the first time in fall 2008, 9.8 percent belonged to a minority group, compared to 15.6 percent in fall 2007.

“What it meant for us was less in terms of admissions decision-making. It affected us on scholarships,” said Jody Chychinski, GVSU’s director of admissions. “We had to look at those that included ethnicity as a factor. We knew we would be down as a result of that.”

The university’s Bert Price Scholarship had been available to minority students for years and was widely known in the community. It had to be discontinued to comply with the new law, Chychinski said.

Instead, the university now offers scholarships aimed at students from certain urban high schools in cities with a concentration of minorities, such as Detroit, Chicago and Pontiac, Chychinski said.

Other scholarships reach participants in early college preparedness programs for low-income students, such as Upward Bound, Gear Up and the Wade McCree Scholarship program, as long as students post a 3.3 high school grade point average and earn at least a 21 composite score on the ACT, she said.

It’s difficult to underestimate how much the cost of a college education looms for students, especially low-income and first-generation students, added Oliver Wilson, dean of GVSU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. Despite the loss of the Bert Price Scholarships, other options are available, he said.

“We have to help parents and students have a paradigm shift,” he said. “The way to do it is to help parents understand better the financial aid process.”

Chychinski said that while the heaviest part of the college recruitment and admissions season runs from September to November, the election occurred in November and the law went into effect in December 2006, after GVSU had already awarded admissions offers and financial aid for the 2007-08 academic year.

While the number of minority first-time college students is down at GVSU, total minority enrollment held fairly steady from fall 2007 to fall 2008 at more than 11 percent, Chychinski said.

“We brought in a small freshman class for the students, but we also retained at a higher rate,” she said.

At WMU, minority enrollment was up by 288 this fall compared to 2007, to about 15 percent of the 19,854 student body, Hearit said. “What we were most tickled about was about 10.5 percent of the increase was with African-American students,” he said.

Like GVSU, the university, which has its main campus in Kalamazoo, has a line-up of scholarships available to high school graduates who have completed one of the early intervention programs, which Hearit said the college wants to make sure are “invigorated.”

WMU also has launched new programs for other underserved populations, such as military veterans. One of the most successful is aimed at former foster children who turn 18 and are released from state custody without much support. Hearit said the program, expected to serve 15 students, ballooned to 51 students, many of them minorities.

FSU, in Big Rapids, has seen increases in minority enrollment over the past several years, said Kristen Salomonson, dean of enrollment services.

Traditionally “a less selective university,” FSU has increased its expectations for grade point averages and ACT scores over the past few years, Salomonson said, but still is seeing record enrollments in all categories.

“We are actively trying to ensure we remain a diverse campus, giving our students an opportunity to interact with people that maybe they didn’t grow up with,” Salomonson said. FSU has ramped up recruiting in areas such as Chicago and in other countries, she said.

“We have actually experienced an increase in the number of races-other-than-white students since the fall of 2006. … We’re not attracting large numbers but the trajectory of the number is the direction we’d like to see.”

For example, the African-American students population has grown from 685 in 2006 to 843 in 2008; and the number of Hispanic students was 177 in 2006 and is 259 today, she said.

“We recognize, and are kind of trying to usher the students into, that idea that you kind of have to enter the world now with a more holistic viewpoint of who you’re going to encounter, where you’re gong to be in the world, and what kind of path you might have for your vocational opportunities,” Salomonson said.

“It’s kind of opening all our eyes as Americans that we are truly in a global situation, and it’s going to be important for all of us to retain our identities but be able to communicate well with people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves.”

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