Diversity stymied


Washington Post, November 29, 2004

ONLY LAST YEAR the University of Michigan won a landmark battle in the Supreme Court establishing the legitimacy of carefully designed affirmative action programs to ensure diversity in higher education. This year, fresh off that victory, the university experienced a sudden drop in African American enrollment. Applications from black students for undergraduate admissions were down more than 25 percent. Total undergraduate enrollment by African Americans fell from 1,960 last year to 1,875 this year even though the entering freshman class is the university’s largest. While black graduate enrollment rose slightly, African Americans are a smaller percentage of the total student body than last year.

It isn’t entirely clear why these numbers look so grim. Part of it, university officials believe, is simply negative publicity from the litigation, which cast the school not as one struggling to be open to minorities but as a place where race was controversial. Even after the school prevailed on the major point at issue in the case, activists sought to ban affirmative action in the state, which may have turned off prospective students.

But the major problem may have nothing to do with Michigan. Post staff writer Michael Dobbs reports that numerous other large universities are reporting declining black enrollments; these include many campuses in the University of California system, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the private University of Pennsylvania. The University of Georgia experienced a 26 percent drop in African American freshmen this year, Ohio State University a 29 percent drop and the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois a 32 percent drop.

The reality is that American public schools are preparing many fewer African American students — particularly males — for education at elite universities than those universities would like to admit. Consequently, the competition among universities for each well-qualified student is fierce. The key to increasing minority enrollment lies partly in intelligent affirmative action programs; partly in awarding tuition aid on need, not merit; and ultimately in increasing the number of students ready and able to apply. No matter how committed to diversity or recruiting of minority students universities may be, they can compensate only so much for the profound failures of the primary and secondary educational systems that generate their applicant pools.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company