Universities record drop in black admissions

By Michael Dobbs

Washington Post, November 22, 2004

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Despite winning a marathon Supreme Court struggle last year to continue using race as a factor in admitting students, the University of Michigan is reporting the smallest class of African American freshmen in 15 years.

A similar decline in the number of incoming black students has been recorded at many state universities across the country, from California to Georgia to much of the Midwest. The trend has alarmed and puzzled college admissions officers, who place great importance on targeting and recruiting talented minorities.

“You don’t see many people of color in the dorms. I feel a little isolated,” said humanities student Ashley Gilbert, one of 350 black freshmen enrolled this year at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, where there are 5,730 students in the entering class. The number of black students is down from 410 last year and nearly 500 in 2001.

The pattern is by no means uniform — both the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia report steady numbers of African Americans enrolling — but it is sufficiently widespread to cause concern among university presidents and students alike. State flagship institutions appear to be experiencing the biggest declines, while some private universities and many community colleges and second-tier state schools are reporting an increase in minority enrollment.

There is no single explanation for the drop in African American enrollment, officials at the University of Michigan and other colleges say. But one important factor is the unexpected fallout from the June 2003 Supreme Court decision, which required the University of Michigan and many other schools to change their entrance procedures to evaluate applicants individually rather than automatically award extra admissions points to minority students.

Other factors include the sharply rising cost of college tuition, which has an intimidating effect on low-income groups, and a restricted applicant pool. According to the College Board, 1,877 African American students nationwide scored higher than 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT last year, compared with nearly 150,000 students overall who achieved that score. Minority students with higher SAT scores have become the target of frenzied competition between state and private colleges.

“Something is going on here that is larger than just this university,” said Ted Spencer, chief admissions officer at the University of Michigan. “We are all shooting for the same small group of students.”

In addition to Michigan, other colleges that have reported significant drops in the number of black freshmen include many campuses in the University of California system, Penn State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as the private University of Pennsylvania. Enrollment of African American freshmen was down this year by 26 percent at the University of Georgia, 29 percent at Ohio State University and 32 percent on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois.

Enrollment of Hispanics has remained generally stable at major state universities over the past few years, except in California, where it has fallen at flagship institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The problem seems to be particularly acute at the more selective state universities, such as Michigan, which have introduced more complex admissions procedures to comply with the Supreme Court decision. Instead of awarding underrepresented minorities extra points, Michigan now requires applicants to write essays explaining what they would contribute to the “diverse” atmosphere on campus and how they have reacted to personal “setbacks” or “ethical dilemmas.”

Admissions officers note that applications to Michigan for attending this year dropped among all groups of students, but particularly among blacks. The number of African American freshman applications to the university declined 28 percent, from 1,868 to 1,337. The number of black freshmen this year was the smallest since 1989, though the overall freshman class is the largest in Michigan’s 187-year history.

“The application became significantly harder,” said Jason S. Mironov, president of Michigan’s 39,000-student body. “Unless you were absolutely sure you wanted to go to Michigan, many students were reluctant to spend a great deal of time with the application.”

One problem, according to Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, is that the June 2003 Supreme Court decision was viewed in some quarters as a defeat for the university even though it upheld the principle of affirmative action as a means to achieving diversity. “There are some misconceptions that we lost the case,” she said, referring to the stipulation that the university had to overhaul its undergraduate admissions procedures.

Some students agree. “What a lot of people remember is a big case about race at the University of Michigan,” said Gilbert, the first-year humanities student. “By the time the case was decided, most students had already decided where they wanted to go to school. Many students of color chose to go to historically black colleges, or to Michigan State.”

Others say rising tuition and declining state subsidies may have discouraged lower-income students from applying to prestigious state universities such as Michigan. Although Michigan offers full financial aid packages to in-state students, its out-of-state costs are among the highest in the country.

“A lot of African Americans feel like they won’t get in here and, if they do get in, they won’t get the financial aid they need,” said Tania Smith, a sociology senior who served on a university advisory group on student diversity.

The squeeze on lower-income students has been compounded in some states by a shift from need-based aid to merit-based aid. Georgia, for example, now awards only merit aid, which is tied to students’ academic performance, rather than their financial need. Other states are following suit, as legislators respond to the concerns of their predominantly middle-class electorate. Federal Pell Grants to lower-income students have generally not kept pace with inflation.

“Low-income students are generally the most risk averse to loans,” said Dell Dunn, vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia, which enrolled 418 African American students this year, down from 521 last year. “They don’t like to borrow money because they are worried about paying it back.”

In some states, the decline in minority enrollment has followed the outlawing of affirmative action programs. According to a study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California, acceptance rates for black and Hispanic students fell sharply after Californians voted down affirmative action programs in 1996. The impact was greatest at the most selective campuses, such as Berkeley, where the acceptance rate for African American students fell from 49 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 1998.

By contrast, in Texas, minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M has been creeping up, despite a 1996 court ruling outlawing affirmative action. Many experts attribute the increase to a 1997 law that guarantees high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class admission to a state university. Although ostensibly race-neutral, the measure has had the effect of boosting the admissions chances of students attending heavily minority schools.

University of Michigan officials oppose the “10 percent plans” because they restrict admissions decisions to class ranking, excluding such factors as leadership ability, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities. The University of Michigan officials also argue such plans discriminate against students from highly competitive high schools.

Critics say the admissions system at Michigan and similar state flagship institutions is more art than science and has become even more subjective as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Michigan admissions officers say they base their decisions on a mixture of academic and nonacademic factors that reflect the “whole student.”

“The point system, while flawed, was at least transparent,” said Michael Phillips, editor of the Michigan Review, a conservative student publication opposed to affirmative action. “Now nobody is quite sure what is happening.”

© 2004 The Washington Post Company