Searching for Black Students

Florida universities see a decline in projections for the fall, but hope to bring numbers up by September.
August 4, 2005

Preliminary numbers show that fewer black students were admitted to the State University System of Florida by May than had been admitted by the same time last year.

Officials say that a series of separate institutional policies, not the state’s ban on affirmative action in university admissions, are to blame. And some colleges hope that any decline will disappear in September enrollment figures -- while others note that the declines are concentrated at a few institutions.

The statistics show about a 4.5 percent decrease, or 421 students, in the number of black applicants admitted to any institution in the system as compared to the end of May last year. "These number are not enrollment," said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for Florida Board of Education. “We will know what enrollment truly is in four weeks when people are sitting in class. Right now, these numbers don’t tell you.”

An editorial in The Palm Beach Post noted that the statistics show that admissions of black students are down compared to three years ago, and blamed Governor Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” plan which outlawed affirmative action in 1999, and replaced it with guaranteed admission to a state university for students in the top 20 percent of their high school class. But the data from three years ago is from the end of June, not the end of May. Edmonds said some colleges are still processing applications in June, so it is unfair to compare the numbers.

The statistics show that Florida State University admitted 150 fewer black students through the end of May as compared to last May, a 10.6 percent decrease. "That’s no surprise,” said John Barnhill, director of admissions and records. “We’re admitting a smaller class in general.” Barnhill said that the state funding squeeze has limited Florida State’s growth, and that the institution wants to cut back a bit. To do that, Florida State changed admissions standards, deciding not to admit students whose standardized test scores indicated a need for remedial classes. As Barnhill noted, students in the top 20 percent of their class is guaranteed admission to a state university, but not necessarily to the one of their choice.

Barnhill said the admissions change accounts for the decline at Florida State, but said if the numbers suggesting a system wide decline are real, it would be cause for concern. “That would be a warning flag, but it’s too early to tell,” he said.

At the University of South Florida, where early numbers were down 252 admitted black students, or 19.8 percent, from last year, a new $200 admissions deposit is the cause of a decline across all student groups, according to Ralph Wilcox, vice provost for student enrollment and planning. Accepted students have to put down the deposit or their admission is cancelled. He added that, while the university is projecting a slight decline in black freshmen, the number of Hispanic freshmen is expected to increase, probably due to the swiftly increasing Hispanic population of  Florida.

Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, was not available for comment, but told The Orlando Sentinel that Bush’s One Florida plan has made it more difficult to recruit minority students, because race cannot be factored into admissions. Several institutions said their response to that change was to increase recruitment efforts, and, after a decline in black student enrollment right after One Florida began, the university system rebounded as recruitment efforts strengthened.

Terry Mills, associate dean of minority affairs and special programs at Florida, said his office began making visits to students from underrepresented populations who were admitted, in an effort to persuade them to enroll. The office also strengthened support services, and Mills said retention has improved. He did express concern about the new online application process, however. “There is some concern that the application process is now primarily online, and students from underrepresented groups might not have as much access to technology,” Mills said. 

Florida A&M University posted the sharpest decline, with 472, or 13 percent fewer black applicants admitted to the historically black college, which is 93 percent black. Officials at Florida A&M would not comment, but the university has been facing severe budget problems in the last year.

Others institutions showed an increase in their preliminary numbers of black students. Florida International University admitted 227 more black applicants.


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