Progress, But Only Partial

Enrollment of black freshmen at U. of Kentucky rebounds from last year's drop, but officials know harder work is ahead.
September 15, 2006

Last fall, after two years of hefty increases in the number of African American freshmen who enrolled, the University of Kentucky reported a 40 percent drop in that number. The reversal created significant concern among black faculty members and students about a perceived chilly climate on the campus, and legislators called on President Lee T. Todd Jr. to explain the decline.

Todd, an engineer by trade field with a background in business, did what he said comes naturally: "You get as much data as you can." He knew that at least a small proportion of the drop -- to 151 black freshmen, from 256 the year before -- was probably attributable to an increase in the minimum ACT score Kentucky required for admission, which "knocked out some black candidates and a lot of Caucasians, too," he said. At that point, the university's admissions process leaned almost entirely on standardized test scores and high school grade point averages.

But Todd suspected the bigger problem lay in the fact that fact that the university had accepted 350 students, and 200 of them had turned Kentucky down. So he asked his admissions team to talk to as many of the students who went elsewhere as possible. Some campus officials and legislators suspected that the students had been motivated by the institution's history of racial discrimination and perceptions that its current climate for black students was unreceptive.

It turned out, Todd says, that the reason cited most often by the African American students who declined to come to Kentucky was that the scholarship money it was offering did not stack up to the offers from other institutions in the state. Only 4 percent of the respondents, Todd said, reported that the campus climate had been a factor.

Kentucky's first step in response was to increase the funds for its "diversity" scholarship program by $500,000, to $3.3 million a year, shifting funds from a scholarship reserve fund. (The diversity scholarships go not just to members of racial minority groups but to students from backgrounds of "abject poverty" and to some women.)

The university did not stop there, however. It also altered its admissions process to adopt the more "holistic" approach to which selective institutions have increasingly turned, emphasizing factors other than numbers, including leadership abilities, community involvement, and students' own commitment to diversity efforts. Kentucky added eight employees to its admissions staff to handle the extra work entailed in reading the applications, and also to more aggressively reach out to prospective students -- especially those from underserved populations -- to help them maneuver through the application process.

Those and other efforts appeared to pay off this fall, when 296 African American freshmen -- a record high -- joined Kentucky's overall class of 4,192. Some of the legislators who had pummeled the university for last year's drop offered praise to Todd for the turnaround.

State Rep. Darryl G. Owens, a Democrat who represents Louisville, had called Todd on the carpet last fall to explain himself. In an interview Thursday, Owens said that even back then, he had been impressed by what he heard. "When I and the other legislators met with him last year, the thing that particularly struck me was that he was not the least bit defensive," he said of Todd. "I said to some of my colleagues, 'I think this man gets it.' But the proof is always in the pudding, and these results, now that we have them, speak quite well of President Todd and his commitment."

Todd, who is the principal investigator on a new $2.4 million National Science Foundation grant ( involving 10 universities in Kentucky and West Virginia) aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented students in math and science fields, is pleased that after last year's striking downturn in black enrollment, Kentucky has gotten back on track with the increases it had enjoyed the previous two years. But he acknowledges that that is all Kentucky has really done so far -- recover -- and that the hardest work is still ahead.

The fluctuations in Kentucky's black enrollment numbers, and the fact that the university was able to turn things around this year mostly by throwing additional scholarship money at potential students, suggests that "we're just sloshing some kids around from university to university," Todd said. Like a lot of states, the real challenge for Kentucky -- if it is to meet state mandated goals for increasing its low numbers of bachelor's degrees awarded -- will be to "get the minority populations going to college and getting the Caucasian college going rate up."

The only way that's going to happen, he says, is if Kentucky and other postsecondary institutions in the state reach into the middle schools, and possibly even further into the educational pipeline, to "get kids who are entering the 8th grade who aren't planning to go to college, and try to get them to."

He adds: "What we've done so far is to move us back to where we were. But I won't be happy until we start getting new faces in the pipeline."


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