According to the University’s newly released statistics, minority enrollment for the freshman class of 2015 is 12.8 percent — the highest rate since 2005 — creating hope that University President Mark Schlissel’s new diversity initiatives will prove successful. Along with a 2.8-percent increase in overall minority enrollment from 2014’s entering class, socioeconomic diversity also improved, with the number of low-income students rising to 10.2 percent of the freshman class. While these numbers are promising, the University must continue to improve its diversity statistics through proactive initiatives or risk being seen as uninviting to students of all backgrounds.
The University has a complicated and storied history when it comes to achieving a diverse student body. In 2003, the Supreme Court heard two cases concerning affirmative action at the University. Grutter v. Bollinger upheld the constitutionality of the Law School’s “holistic approach” in its use of affirmative action. Opposingly, the Court decided in Gratz v. Bollinger that a point-based system used by undergraduate admissions was not narrowly tailored enough to reach the University’s goal of diversity. Subsequently, in 2006, Michigan voters passed Proposal 2, which effectively banned affirmative action across the state. This, in addition to tuition hikes and other deterrents, have led to the decreasing minority enrollment at the University. In 2005, minority undergraduate enrollment was at 13.8 percent, but by 2006 it had dropped to 12.4 percent. Last year, the University was criticized as the school’s student body has slowly become both wealthier and whiter.
At the beginning of his tenure at the University, Schlissel outlined several initiatives aimed at increasing the falling rates of racial and socioeconomic diversity. In 2015, the University provided incoming freshmen with an 8.1-percent increase in financial aid packages, sent acceptance letters that included financial aid packages and also increased recruitment in areas that traditionally received less attention from University undergraduate admissions.
Other initiatives include creating long-term partnerships with K-12 districts to support bright students who aspire to attend the University and introducing a new scholarship called H.A.I.L. for high-achieving students of lower socioeconomic status. A comprehensive plan detailing even more diversity recruitment policies is due at the end of this calendar year, and is set to be rolled out in September 2016.
While many of Schlissel’s new initiatives focus on the price of college, the most important steps will be the ones centered on making the campus inclusive. In 2014, then-University President Mary Sue Coleman claimed that Michigan’s diversity issue was not from a lack of minority applications, but rather the challenge of converting accepted students into enrollees. Critics charge that the University has stopped seeming accessible to underrepresented minorities and lower-income students, both financially and by lacking a campus atmosphere that fosters tolerance and diversity. The University has begun to combat these criticisms by planning to relocate Trotter Multicultural Center to Central Campus by 2017 and increasing the Black Student Union’s budget.
In addition to official University endeavors, students hope they can change the mindset that campus is unwelcoming to minorities and lower-income students. LSA and Engineering junior Will Royster began a program called the Michigan Institute for the Improvement of African American Representation through the BSU to encourage minority high school students to view the University as both an attainable and attractive goal. The University has largely relied on both official recruitment trips and student-run programs like these to show minority students that our campus is worth aspiring toward. Increased efforts in these areas should obviously be a priority on the administration’s part.
While the new diversity initiatives are promising, the University must remain aggressive in their plans to increase the number of both minority and lower-income students, especially those from the state of Michigan. It is especially important for the University to once again feel accessible to students of all backgrounds. As a public school, the University has an obligation to the people of the state to offer a world-class education and campus that is accessible to all backgrounds. The more diversity the campus has to offer, the more diversity it will be able to attract.
While increases in financial aid and scholarship money are a step in the right direction, students will only enroll at the University when they feel a sense of belonging on campus. Diversity does not stop at admissions, and the administration must continue to implement programs on campus that create a more inclusive environment. The University has fallen behind in attracting minority and low-income students, and rectifying the issue must remain a top priority of current and future administrations.