A&M pushing for diversity

School strives to recruit minorities through phone calls, VIP visits

By Holly K. Hacker

The Dallas Morning News, November 1, 2004

What does it take to get a minority student to Texas A&M University?

University President Robert Gates has personally phoned students at home, encouraging them to become Aggies. Recruiters promote the university at high schools across the state and arrange campus visits, ferrying minority students to College Station in SUVs.

Texas A&M officials would like their student body to reflect Texas’ diversity. But that may take a lot more work. Eighty percent of freshmen at the state’s second-largest university are white, about the same percentage as a decade ago.

At the University of Texas at Austin, by contrast, 57 percent of freshmen are white, down from 65 percent 10 years ago. And overall, whites have accounted for an even smaller percentage of freshmen entering public universities in Texas.

Texas A&M officials say it’s not for lack of trying that they haven’t persuaded more minority students to don maroon; they’ve actively recruited minority students for years, especially after a 1996 court ruling that prevented Texas universities from using race in admissions or scholarship decisions. Some minority groups question Texas A&M’s approach, especially since other universities have more to show for their efforts.

This fall, Texas A&M trumpeted double-digit gains in the number of black and Hispanic freshmen. The numbers increased from 158 to 213 for blacks and from 692 to 869 for Hispanics.

Dr. Gates recently characterized those numbers as a reversal of a downward trend.

“This is only the beginning,” he said, “and the momentum that resulted in major gains in minority enrollment this year will intensify.”

In an incoming class of more than 7,000, however, those numbers are relative drops in the multicultural bucket. Blacks make up 3 percent of new freshmen, up almost a point from last year but still down from a 10-year high of nearly 5 percent. Hispanic representation grew from 10 percent last year to 12 percent, which fell shy of a 10-year high of 14 percent.

Critics say A&M can do more to attract minority students, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year that universities may consider race as a limited factor in admissions.

Until that decision, which involved admissions policies at the University of Michigan, a 1996 federal appeals court ruling had blocked the use of racial preferences in Texas. A state law passed the following year allowed students in the top 10 percent of their high school class to attend any Texas public university. Now, some legislators suggest that law may no longer be needed.

After the Supreme Court ruling, UT officials said they would again consider race in admissions. Dr. Gates, however, announced that A&M would not, so that students would know they were accepted on their own merits.

But he also stepped up the recruiting efforts and announced $8 million in scholarships, most targeted toward students whose parents did not attend college and earn less than $40,000 a year.

That’s not enough for Luis Figueroa, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“A&M still hasn’t made the efforts, in our opinion, to really get a diverse student population, and they can do more,” he said. “Without an affirmative action program, it sends a signal to the students that you’re not necessarily looking for these types of students.”

For now, Texas A&M continues to focus on aggressive recruiting to build minority enrollment.

At Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth, more than 30 seniors recently gathered in the library and peppered recruiters from Texas A&M with questions.

What kind of financial aid is there? Do you have to live on campus the first year? Are there lots of parties? How big are classes?

For students thinking of college, such queries are typical. But for A&M, the Eastern Hills seniors are decidedly atypical: Most are minorities.

It wasn’t an accident that the recruiters were at Eastern Hills. To increase the number of minority students at Texas A&M, they need for more to apply.

Many of the recruiters work out of “prospective-student centers” that have opened in the last two years in cities and areas with large minority populations: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley. At the centers, students can find out about admissions criteria, academics, financial aid and housing.

Candace Sharp, a black senior at Eastern Hills, said she might feel uneasy at a college where most students are another color. But she said she wants to apply to A&M because of her philosophy: “Go where the best education is. You can always meet new people and get used to it later.”

Classmate Jeannie Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, said she’d like to attend college where some students share her background, “so I can know my culture and not forget it.”

At the same time, she likes the idea of spreading her wings in College Station.

“I need to go a little way from my parents, because I don’t know how to do laundry,” she said.

Michael DeLeon, one of the A&M recruiters who visited Eastern Hills High, said he’d love for the students to attend A&M, but above all he wants them to attend college, period.

“It’s not just A&M. The numbers [of minority college students] don’t reflect the population,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to work on.”

In a way, the recruiting efforts reflect A&M’s original purpose as a land-grant college: to make higher education accessible to all Americans, not just the wealthy and privileged.

Yet A&M opened in 1876 as an all-male, all-white military school, and it excluded women and minorities until 1963. Even though the school integrated long before today’s students were born, perceptions linger that A&M is less welcoming to students of color.

Adriana Lopez, a Texas A&M freshman from Laredo, heard that from friends at her predominantly Hispanic high school. “Everyone asked me, ‘Why are you going to go to A&M? It’s not diverse,’ ” she said. “They said it was just a bunch of white people.”

But Ms. Lopez was drawn to A&M, largely because her mother, uncle and other relatives had attended. She also visited the campus before deciding where to attend.

Campus visits are part of A&M’s recruiting strategy. The university began offering VIP (Very Important Prospect) tours for high school students in February. The program brings small groups of high-school students from Dallas, Houston and elsewhere to campus for a day or two to meet with professors, admissions officers, financial aid counselors and students.

Black and Hispanic students typically are less likely than white students to attend A&M once they’re admitted. Administrators say students who visit campus are more likely to enroll.

“In trying to sell students in coming to A&M, we want to help them see the community, see the university and the opportunity that’s here,” Vice Provost Bill Perry said.

Ms. Lopez said it has taken time, but she’s found a niche at A&M.

“Just being an Aggie makes you one of the family, whether you’re black or Indian or Asian or Hispanic,” she said.

In addition to campus visits, students also are contacted by phone. Students, professors and even Dr. Gates have called to encourage them to attend.

Marino Herrera, a senior electrical engineering major, was one of the volunteers. Sometimes, when calling Hispanic students, he spent even more time talking to parents, often in Spanish. They asked about everything from campus security to classes to the dorms.

A&M representatives are not the only ones calling.

“Everybody’s going after the same pool,” said César Malavé, assistant dean for recruitment and international programs in A&M’s engineering college. “These are solid students, and everyone wants them.”