Fewer Students, Higher Standards

Johnson C. Smith is in transition, focusing efforts in increasing rigor and evaluating the curriculum.

December 9, 2011

Johnson C. Smith University saw its enrollment fall by 200 in 2009, and it is looking to cut programs in the coming year. But these are good things, says Ronald Carter, the university’s president.

In 2009, the university capped admissions about 200 students short of the year before because of a commitment made by administration, faculty and the board of trustees to increase the academic standards at the private, historically black college in Charlotte. The faculty also just completed an exhaustive reexamination of the curriculum.  The move was notable, given the longstanding mission of Johnson C. Smith, like many black colleges, to be open and welcoming to students who might not be admitted elsewhere. Some worry about the university moving away from that mission, but university leaders and some others say the college is shifting in an important way toward an emphasis on academic rigor, with the goal of graduating more students, not just admitting them

There have always been black institutions — such as Morehouse and Spelman Colleges — with highly competitive  admissions.  While the changes at Johnson C. Smith aren't bringing the university into that level of admissions competition, they do represent a move in that direction and away from the approach of admitting most who apply.

“We look carefully at every student and say, ‘Is this is a good fit?’ ” Carter said. “That is raising standards in raising in that question."

Making Waves

In its deliberate efforts to elevate the caliber of student, university officials have aimed to admit those with higher high-school grade-point averages and SAT scores.  Admissions officers are also looking at “non-cognitive variables,” Carter said.  For example, admission officers are taking a closer look at prospective students’ volunteer and work experience, motivation to learn, and self-confidence.  So while average score and grade numbers are rising, those figures are not the sole factor, Carter said.

Slow improvements are evident in the university’s average student profile and graduation and retention rates -- starting in the data for 2009-10, when the new admissions standards took effect.

Four-year Snapshot of the Changes at Johnson C. Smith
Note: Graduation rates largely reflect the performance of students admitted under old standards

  2008-2009 2009-2010* 2010-2011 2011-2012
Average high school GPA of incoming freshmen 2.6 2.89 2.98 2.91
Average SAT score of incoming freshmen (reading and math) 821 867 879 862
Fall-to-fall retention rate 63% 68% 70% 74%
Six-year graduation rate 39% 38% 39% 37%

Data provided by Johnson C. Smith Office of Enrollment Services
*Academic year university administration implemented changes to academic standards

Wanda Ebright, president of the Faculty Senate and chair of visual, performing and communication arts, said her colleagues have mixed feelings on the change. When Carter came to the university as president in 2008, he reached out to faculty to assess the current shape of the institution.  Many faculty members were concerned that  some students were unwilling or unable to finish their degrees.  Through these discussions, a plan was formulated to increase the academic standards, Ebright said.

Ebright said she believes the changes are positive, as she’s already seen differences in her classes, with students showing a greater willingness to work hard and pay attention. 

But some professors and students are concerned, she said.

“I think that there have also been some people who feel we are letting down a segment of the African American community who may not have had access to a certain education,” Ebright said. “There are some students who I have heard echo that sentiment. Students at least used the term that this was a second-chance university. Some people are offended that the higher admission standard is making it impossible for some people to come to Smith.”

Ebright said despite these concerns, the administration and faculty have struck a balance in maintaining the institution's historic mission while improving its academic rigor.  For example, the university offers a summer program for students who are on the cusp of admission, she said.

“Any time there is change it will create anxiety because … you are saying, ‘We are not what we used to be and we are not what we want to be, so what are we?’ ” Carter said. “We had to continue to reassure folks that we are not turning our backs against a student who may have struggled but has strong motivation.  We are being more thoughtful about the students we accept into the university.” 

John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said black colleges have a tradition of admitting, educating and gradating students who don’t always have the highest test scores and grades coming out of high school. But with a stagnant economy, it is becomingly increasingly difficult to prepare students for life after four years of college, he said. 

It’s important, then, for all institutions, not just black colleges, to reexamine their capacity to prepare students for the future, he said.  At Johnson C. Smith, administrators are carefully evaluating their capacity to successfully educate and graduate students — an effort Wilson said he applauds. “I don’t see this as drifting from the access mission. I see this as strengthening the completion mission,” Wilson said. “I think we have to educate and graduate students effectively — that’s the bottom line. In order to do that well you have to shape a class with as much as wisdom as possible.”

Indeed, James Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation, said it’s an unfair to assume that by raising academic standards the university is no longer following its historical mission. Minor said this shift reflects the higher education environment.  “The higher education community has a story of hypnotic fix on outcomes,” he said. “Part of the challenge is that focusing on outcomes is used as a proxy for institutional effectiveness.”

Minor said it's great Carter and the university’s faculty are undertaking such a strategy to strengthen the institution. 

One reason the university was able to shoulder the burden of losing out on tuition dollars from 200 students is a $2 million grant from the Duke Endowment, a private foundation that financially supports four universities in the Carolinas, including Johnson C. Smith.  The university also received a $35 million grant from the endowment — one of the largest gifts ever received by a black college -- in October to support the university as it moves through this transition and into the future, said Eugene Cochrane, president of the fund.

“We are very impressed with [Carter’s] vision, but also his strategy for carrying it out,” Cochrane said. 

Sylvia Carey-Butler, director of enrollment management for the United Negro College Fund Institute for Capacity Building, said it’s a “misnomer” that most HBCUs are open-enrollment.  There are 38 UNCF member institutions, including Johnson C. Smith, and of them, only 10 are open-enrollment.  Even then, she said, those institutions have baseline requirements for admission. 

At Johnson C. Smith, it’s not “change for change’s sake,” Carey-Butler said. “They are really trying to create an ethos that lends itself to student success,” she said. “At Johnson C. Smith they have been engaged in not only how they enroll and retain students, but connecting that to the faculty.  They continually look to enhance across several domains on campus.”

Starting at the Beginning

Carter said that the shifts at the university don't mean a sole focus on test scores.  For example, he said a student recently applied with a 1300 SAT score, but Carter said there was no evidence that student was serious about learning at the university and the student was not admitted.

On top of changing measures of prospective students, Carter said the faculty just completed an exhaustive overhaul of the entire 28-major curriculum.  Programs will be added, programs will end and programs will be consolidated, he said.  Carter said the university wants students who are graduating with a passion to be “social entrepreneurs,” and the new curriculum design focuses on critical, creative and practical thinking in all fields, Carter said.   There is also talk of creating a graduate school, he said.

For example, he said, in the revamped visual and communication arts, there is an emphasis on theory in the classroom, but also on outside mentorship and internship programs with organizations in the city of Charlotte. 

Ebright was a member of the program review committee that evaluated the curriculum and every non-academic center on campus, including housing and dining units. “We are keeping traditions while building on them,” she said. “I see the community involvement getting more interwoven in more intricate ways in serving as a supportive organization.”

Carter said this is just one step in the university’s growth.  The private university has an enrollment of about 1,500 this year, but it hopes to expand to about 2,500 in the coming years, he said. "Johnson C. Smith University is on a trajectory that will land it in the forefront of HBCUs,” Carter said. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct Johnson C. Smith's current enrollment figure.)


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