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Struggling to Keep Black Students

June 6, 2006

The effects of state-mandated bans on affirmative action continue to be felt. As policy makers and college officials in Florida introduced a new grant program last week aimed at stemming projected declines in black enrollments, their peers at some institutions in California are puzzling over big drops in their numbers.

In Florida, preliminary numbers last summer indicated that institutions in the State University System of Florida could have faced a significant decline in the number of black students enrolling in fall 2005.

The preliminary numbers, to the delight of administrators, turned out not to be prophetic. The number of black students increased slightly, even though the proportion of all students who are black declined by about a half percent.

Still, with affirmative action having been barred in 1999 as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” plan -- students in the top 20 percent of their high school class are guaranteed admission to a state university -- the preliminary figures were enough to frighten administrators into action.

Last week, Bush signed into law the “First Generation Matching Grant” program, which allocates $6.5 million to state universities, to be given as financial aid, matching funds that raised by the institutions themselves, for students whose parents did not graduate from college.

The University of Florida and Florida A&M University were forces behind the push for matching grants and other aid increases that Bush has proposed, according to Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the Florida system.

Even though the university system’s overall numbers turned out not to be as dire as was forecasted, Florida A&M’s picture was not encouraging.

Resource limitations forced the historically black university to cut its enrollment -- which is 90 percent black -- resulting in a decline of 8.5 percent in one year, from 10,587 in fall 2004, to 9,683 in fall 2005.

LaNedra Carroll, a spokeswoman for FAMU, thinks that increasing tuition in the absence of increasing aid was the major obstacle for students last year.

“I think we’re going to see change with these creative scholarships and matching grants,” Carroll said.

Gordon Chavis, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at the University of Central Florida and a member of the governor’s Access and Diversity Commission, said that “our foundation people” have been very positive about the matching grants program.

Chavis said that people usually donate to a general scholarship fund, so getting donations specifically for first generation students might require new fund raising tactics. But he added that universities could use the opportunity to court donors who want to know exactly how their money will be used.

Rosenberg added that the matching grants are part of “a culture of incentives within the system that we’d like to preserve.”

In California, the number of black students has declined since the voter-approved Proposition 209 outlawed using race in admissions in 1996. Institutions have struggled to find ways to continue to reach out to minority students, and this year the University of California at Los Angeles raised the crisis flag.

Of about 4,850 students expected to enroll at UCLA next fall, 96 are black, and 20 of those are recruited athletes. That’s less than half the number -- 211 -- of black students in the fall of 1997.

Applications from black students were up -- 2,166 as opposed to 1,844 last year -- but only 244 were admitted for the class that enters this fall, compared to 280 for the class that entered in 2005. And of those 244, only 96 declared their intention to attend. UCLA did admit 30 more black transfer students than last year.

California’s “Master Plan for Higher Education” dictates that, to qualify for the UC system, students must be in the top one-eighth of the applicant pool.

Janina Montero, UCLA's vice chancellor for student affairs, said that the university received 47,000 applications for the incoming class, but that the number of black students deemed to be in the top one-eighth was “very, very low.”

Montero said that UCLA is very concerned, and that a “critical mass” of black students “is critical to the quality of the educational environment.” She also worries that the low number of black students could send a message that UCLA is not a destination for black students, further exacerbating the situation.

After voters approved Proposition 209, the UC system adopted a “comprehensive review” system of admissions, whereby students are supposed to be evaluated holistically, as opposed to just by grades and test scores. Montero said that comprehensive review was implemented “to balance the effects of Prop 209.”

But Darnell Hunt, head of UCLA's Bunche Center for African American Studies, said that UCLA’s version of comprehensive review is broken.

He pointed out that at the University of California at Berkeley, which is generally thought to be more selective than UCLA, the number of black students fell off a cliff following the passage of Prop 209, but that its black enrollment is now moderately steady, and higher than UCLA’s. Berkeley expects to enroll 140 black students next fall.

Hunt and colleagues at the center have studied UCLA’s admissions procedures. In a report they will release later this month, researchers compared admissions at UCLA, Berkeley and the university’s San Diego campus, which also has highly competitive admissions.

What they found was that the more a system relied on traditional numbers -- SAT scores, grade point average, number of Advanced Placement courses -- the fewer black students they had.

San Diego is facing having just 52 black students in its incoming class. But Hunt said that UCLA’s number might be even more distressing, given that the university is in a county that he said has the second largest black population in America. He added that, thanks to its truly holistic applicant review process, Berkeley gets more black students from Los Angeles than UCLA does.

In an attempt at objectivity, UCLA gives each application to three readers. Two admissions staff members score each application based on traditional academic numbers. A third, who is a volunteer -- often a high school counselor or retired faculty member -- scores the application for personal achievements outside the classroom and life challenges. The three scores are then used to place the applicant on a three-dimensional matrix. Groups of applicants in the matrix, or “cells,” are ultimately chosen for admission. Hunt said that the latter two categories don’t often significantly change a student’s placement in the matrix. “Academic record drives everything,” he said. “It’s the factor that overwhelms everything else.”

At Berkeley, a single reader reviews the entire application, putting a student’s academic accomplishments in the context of his or her life, and of his or her peers at a given high school.

“Berkeley gets a better sense of who a student is,” Hunt said. “At UCLA, the student is broken up into pieces, and nobody sees them entirely.”

Hunt added that many of the black students UCLA rejects go on to “Princeton, Harvard, Duke, Stanford,” and other highly selective institutions.

He said that UCLA’s piecemeal process is “systematically biased” against black students. An application reader scoring academic achievement who does not have a holistic picture of a student, Hunt said, will not know, for example, that the student’s grade point average is 4.0, and not 4.2 as is the case for many students, simply because AP courses were not offered. Montero said that “there is openness across the board to understanding the impact [of the admissions process] on African American students.”

Hunt added that the decline is having an impact on morale at UCLA, where students staged a march several weeks ago to protest the low number of black students. “Any time [UCLA] dips below 100 [black students],” he said, “you’re treading on thin ice.”

Montero said that UCLA is already working to analyze its admissions process in relation to Berkeley’s. “When you have a circumstance like this,” she said, “you don’t know what kind of impact it will have on an applicant pool the following year. What is the impact on communities and kids and schools? … Will they imagine that UCLA is in any way attainable? We can’t just sit and wait.”

 

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