A year ago, minority enrollments fell sharply at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor after it instituted new procedures designed to conform to U.S. Supreme Court's guidance on the consideration of race in admissions. Monday, the university released statistics  suggesting that the numbers are climbing back up, due largely to more aggressive recruiting efforts.
Michigan's undergraduate admissions process has undergone intense scrutiny because it was at the epicenter of the most significant challenge to the use of affirmative action in higher education in two decades. In June 2003 rulings in two cases involving Michigan, a divided Supreme Court upheld  the constitutionality of considering race in admissions but set limits on its use. In the wake of those decisions, Michigan altered its undergraduate admissions policies, leaning more heavily on "individualized" review of students, to conform with the court's dictate that race be one factor among many.
The freshman class that entered Michigan in fall 2004, the first to be admitted under the new policy, had significantly fewer applicants over all and about 15 percent fewer black students than the previous class, continuing a steady decline from the peak in 2001 (see chart below).
University officials at the time blamed the drop on anxiety about the new admissions procedures and "some confusion" about whether the university had won or lost the lawsuit, said Theodore L. Spencer, director of undergraduate admissions at Michigan. "We had work to do to dispel whatever myths there were about the lawsuit, including those that said that we changed our applications to prevent minority students from coming."
Since that time, university officials have intensified their efforts to recruit students generally and African American and Hispanic American students in particular. Michigan admissions officials offered workshops to help students and high school counselors get comfortable with the new application process, and President Mary Sue Coleman appeared at four churches in predominantly black communities to "welcome students and open her arms wide to let them know that they're invited to apply," said Julie A. Peterson, associate vice president for media relations at Michigan.
The preliminary data released by the university Monday suggest that the efforts have paid off. Based on the number of students who have paid deposits to attend -- which does not necessarily equate to actual enrollments, because a certain proportion of students who put down deposits to hold their spots end up going elsewhere, in a process known as "summer melt" -- 20.1 percent more black students and 15.3 percent more Hispanic students put down deposits than did a year ago.
Gauging exactly how Michigan's freshman class might look come the fall is difficult. But assuming roughly the same proportion of "summer melt" as occurred a year ago, black enrollment would climb back up above where they were in 2003, the year before the Supreme Court ruled. Enrollment of Hispanic-Americans would approach its highest level ever:
|Freshmen, by race||2001||2002||2003||2004||2005*|
*Estimated assuming that same proportion of matriculants enroll in 2005 as in 2004.
The university also released statistics suggesting that the increase in minority enrollments did not come about because Michigan bent over backwards for minority applicants, as some skeptics might have suspected. The number of black applicants to the university for fall 2005, for instance, rose by 12.8 percent, and the number of black students admitted rose by 15.5; that means that Michigan admitted about 58.8 percent of the black applicants in 2005, compared to 57.4 percent of black applicants in 2004. (About 74 percent of Hispanic applicants were admitted in 2005, compared to 71 percent in 2004, and about 59 percent of white applicants were admitted in 2005, down from 65 percent in 2004.)
And "academic quality did not slip at all in any of the categories," said Theodore M. Spencer, admissions director at Michigan. "We were very aware of that, and wanted to make sure that didn't happen."
Given the continuing contention surrounding Michigan's affirmative action policies -- critics plan a ballot initiative challenging public colleges' use of race in admissions -- it wouldn't be surprising to find some skepticism about how the university achieved its apparent increasesin minority enrollments.
But at least opponent of Michigan's previous admission policies, Terence J. Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which represented the students who challenged Michigan's policies, said the initial results suggest that the university is "doing what it ought to be doing: encouraging more students to apply and to attend once they're admitted." The fact that the numbers of minority applicants and of admitted minority students had risen by roughly comparable numbers suggests that Michiganisn't lowering the academic bar to bolster its minority enrollments, he added.
"The numbers are consistent with what the university is saying, and that's all good news," Pell said. The one thing that is unknown at this point, he said, is whether the minority students Michigan is admitting now will thrive academically on a par with their peers. "If Michigan continues to experience the sort of disparity in which the black dropout rate is twice that of whites, it will be almost conclusive
proof that it is continuing to use two different standards for admission."
University officials would probably challenge that assertion, since they typically blame the higher dropout rate for minority students largely on financial and other non-academic reasons. But on a rare day when the two sides are largely in agreement, that's a fight for another day.