Chicago Bolsters Minority Numbers

After years of ebbing black enrollment, university's freshman class hits record high -- and 2nd-highest total ever for Hispanic students.
October 18, 2006

Kim Ransom's office on the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus is designed for visitors. A chair set a foot from Ransom's desk is filled for a few minutes most days with any one of seven Chicago freshmen who graduated from a university-run college prep program.

Ransom, director of the Collegiate Scholars Program, which helps high school students -- a majority of whom are black -- from the Chicago Public Schools apply to top-tier institutions, hears from the students about a range of issues, including diversity on campus.

One of the graduates, Roderick Baker, said he has been impressed with the university's commitment to adding black students. "I definitely notice a presence," he says.

This year's Chicago freshman class of 1,262 includes 80 black students, which eclipses the university's previous high by roughly 20. The 97 Hispanic freshmen total equals the second-highest ever. Combined, the two underrepresented minority groups represent 14 percent of the first-year class, though they still fall short of equaling Asian American enrollment.

By the Numbers

Total Freshman Enrollment 1,262
Asian American 191
African American 80
Hispanic 97
International 118
Multiracial 9
Native American 7
Unknown 157

For years, the university has compared favorably to its peer institutions in terms of Hispanic enrollment but lagged in black enrollment, says Michael C. Behnke, Chicago's vice president for university relations and dean of college enrollment.

Ransom, a Chicago Public School graduate who did not attend Chicago, says the university is making up for lost time.

“We haven’t done a good job getting in minorities, let alone students from the Chicago Public Schools," she says.

But things seem to be changing. This fall, 42 students enrolled at Chicago from that school system. Behnke says that university administrators are pleased with the overall spike in black enrollment, especially given the history of low enrollment totals.

“The reason we’re excited is that this is the first time there’s a reasonable representation from all groups,” Behnke says. “Two years ago we had good Hispanic numbers, but it was a fluke. This year, we hope the numbers aren't a fluke.”

Behnke says that the increased diversity in this year's class -- and in particular the sharp rise in black students -- is due to a combination of factors, including a greater national and local recruitment effort and an increasing emphasis on improving the undergraduate experience (with new athletic facilities for all students and increased housing).

Chicago is hardly alone in its quest to boost minority totals, but its heavy emphasis on the liberal arts and lack of pre-professional programs make its recruitment efforts unlike that of some of its competitors. Behnke says the latter presents a particular problem when it comes to attracting first-generation students, whose parents often want assurance that their children's degree will feed into a career that pays right away. (A high number of Chicago students go on for graduate degrees.)

Angel Ochoa, a board member of the Organization of Latin American Students, says the university is operating at a disadvantage because minority applicants see Chicago's traditionally low minority numbers and are hesitant to enroll. Behnke says that the university's location on Chicago's South Side, which has some history of racial tension, hasn't helped its minority recruitment efforts. Last fall, a dorm party where some students came dressed in backward hats, droopy pants and other "ghetto" garb sparked a campus controversy and led to a town-hall meeting on acceptance of diversity.  

Tobara Richardson, a member of the campus's Organization of Black Students, says she has seen the university reach out to black students, particularly after the event. "I've noticed more conversations and more [black] students, but just bringing in more students isn’t necessarily the solution to the problem. It’s about a change in mindset.”

That's the intent of Chicago's  Provost’s Initiative on Minority Issues, which includes an emphasis on recruiting and retaining faculty of color, improving minority student services and developing a curriculum that addresses diversity. Chicago has brought in young minority faculty members to the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Color, and added courses relating to race and the minority experience.

Some students said the Office of Minority Student Affairs, an academic support center that lobbies for increased cross-cultural dialogue, is much improved. Chicago senior Leslie Rosales says a group of students are calling for a core curriculum course in race relations. 

At a time when Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia are planning to do away with their early admissions programs, in part because they were perceived as deterring low-income and minority students, Behnke says that he doesn't believe the university's approach has been part of the problem. More than one third of each class is admitted through the university's nonbinding early action program, which accounts for about one third of the university's students of color per year. A higher percentage of students who apply early seek financial aid than those who apply in the winter, and the admit rate is about equal for the two groups, Behnke says.

Within the past few years, Chicago has ratcheted up its minority recruitment. The Collegiate Scholars Program, started in 2003, is one of the ways Chicago flags promising applicants. Of the 60-some graduates of the program who entered college this fall, 26 applied to Chicago and 21 were admitted, Ransom said.

Last year, the university began paying the way for 100 prospective minority students to visit campus. Students from the Chicago Public Schools do not have to pay the university's application fee, and five from the system are offered full-tuition scholarships each year.

Behnke said the university hasn't compromised its admission standards -- the academic qualifications for admitted minority students have risen along with the overall student body in recent years, he added. There are no financial aid incentives targeted specifically at minority students, but many are on scholarship at the university. Chicago's public school initiatives largely benefit black and Hispanic applicants, who are hardly in the minority at their schools.

On a frostbitten October afternoon, Rosales and classmate Frank Aguilar walk together across Chicago's leafy campus. Inside a gothic-style converted gymnasium, the friends grab meal trays and spot fellow members of the Organization of Latin American Students across the room.

During a conversation about the Hispanic presence on campus, opinions at the table vary.

“I think you notice more Hispanic students now,” says Hector Santana, a member of the group's board.

“Look around,” interjects Aguilar, pointing at a nearly full cafeteria. “I don’t see a lot of diversity here. It’s all at this table.”

Rosales says she had little expectation of diversity when she began at Chicago more than three years ago. The Organization of Latin American Students has more than 20 active students this fall, which she said is more than usual. But Rosales credits the group's recruitment efforts more than the university's for the growth.

"I don't think there's much of a difference now where it's like, 'wow, the school is completely diverse,' " she says.  

But there is diversity of opinion.

“I have noticed a change in the way the university perceives us," Ochoa says. "They seem to understand now the need to diversify the student body.”

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Elia Powers

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