University continues to struggle with minority enrollment

By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 29, 2014

This article is part of a Michigan Daily effort to increase coverage of issues related to diversity, inclusion and identity on campus. Read more about the initiative here.

Minority enrollment at the University has shifted dramatically in the past decade, following two court cases over the University’s race-conscious admission policies and a successful statewide referendum that banned the consideration of race in a public higher education admissions decisions.

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, more commonly referred to as Proposal 2. The 2006 popular referendum banned the consideration of race, among other factors, in college admissions — rendering the final word on affirmative action in the state of Michigan.

The Supreme Court decision does not necessarily signal anything new for the University. Since the ban was passed in 2006, the institution has admitted students without an affirmative action policy in place. At least since the 1970s, and as recently as last year’s BBUM protests led by the Black Student Union, activists and student protesters have set a goal of having Blacks constitute 10 percent of the student population, a threshold that has never been reached.

But now that the last glimmer of hope for a restoration of affirmative action has faded, it commits the University to a difficult situation — a time in which minority representation is at one of the lowest points and renewed protests are demanding it climb up to a goal higher than ever before.

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Members of the Black Student Union demonstrate on the steps of Hill Auditorium on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Allison Farrand/Daily)

New strategies

There are three steps to the process of bringing any student to the University of Michigan: outreach, admittance and conversion, a term used to describe the process of convincing admitted students to enroll.

William Collins, executive director of the University’s Center for Educational Outreach, said when it comes to increasing minority enrollment without affirmative action, each of those steps presents unique challenges. He said University officials have grown more cognizant of those challenges in the years since Proposal 2.

“It’s not simply a matter of ‘can you get people to apply?’ although that’s an issue,” Collins said. “It’s not simply a matter of admitting (people), although that’s an issue. So when you look at it as a constellation of issues here, from aspirations to preparation to application to admission to conversion to matriculation, those are the things that I think there is a growing awareness of.”

In 1996, Black students made up nearly nine percent of the student body, the highest it has ever been. By 2006, right before Proposal 2 came into play, that number had already dropped slightly, to 7.2 percent. The federal guidelines for measuring race changed in 2010, so the numbers aren’t entirely comparable, but over the next eight years, the percentages began a slow and steady decline to an even lower point. According to figures released last week by the Office of the Registrar, Black enrollment stands at 4.63 percent of the undergraduate population. When that number also includes a breakdown of students who identify as more than one race, as is in data compiled by the Office of Budget and Planning, that figure stands at 5.8 percent. In this year’s freshman class alone, the number is significantly lower for Black enrollment — 3.84 percent.

In contrast, roughly 19 percent of Michigan’s college-aged population is Black.

During last year’s BBUM protest, students cited a host of ways low minority enrollment impacted their experiences at the University, including facing harmful stereotypes and repeated instances of microaggressions. The protest went viral on Twitter, resonating with students in schools across the country.

LSA senior Arnold Reed, BSU president, said the low numbers aren’t always visible from a distance, but their impact becomes evident once students arrive on campus.

“Coming for a huge football game, you’re going to see a huge diverse crowd of people,” he said. “It really actually kind of hit me when I was here, how big of an issue it was.”

The University isn’t entirely alone in the disparity of numbers. At Michigan State University, Black enrollment has hovered around 7 percent for the past few years. Across the country, minority enrollment is drastically below state populations among peer institutions that have bans on affirmative action. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, Hispanic and Black enrollment stands at 11 percent and 2 percent, respectively, in contrast to state college-aged populations of 49 percent and 11 percent as of 2011.

States have adopted different ways to address the challenge, and Michigan is comparatively newer arrival. In Texas and Florida, which banned affirmative action in 1996 and 1999 respectively, schools have turned to percent plans, which guarantee admission to a specified top percentage of high school graduates. In California, which banned affirmative action in 1998, the UC system has experimented with dropping requirements for SAT subject tests seen as a barrier to low-income students, placing less emphasis on grades and test scores, as well as implementing a percent plan similar to that of Texas and Florida.

At the University, the first efforts after Proposal 2 passed in 2006 were centered largely around outreach and recruitment, focusing on building pipelines from underserved communities to the University, following the recommendations of a 2007 Diversity Blueprints committee.

The CEO, which works to both increase the school’s presence in underserved communities and ensure that students in those communities are academically prepared to apply, was one of the largest projects to emerge from the committee recommendations in 2008. It now operates over 15 programs, including school visitation initiatives, summer camps for middle-schoolers and college prep for high-schoolers.

In 2014, according to their annual report, 4,558 students and parents participated in their field programs, and the center partnered with 124 schools, community organizations including agencies that serve youth. As of this year, the center now interacts with students as young as third graders through a pilot program at an Ypsilanti elementary school.

Across the University, there are also a multitude of other initiatives with similar aims through groups like the Alumni Center or through the admissions office, though none of the sponsoring organizations of these projects are solely focused on recruitment like the CEO.

When it comes to measuring the long-term outcomes of these programs, there are anecdotal stories of success but not much concrete data as of yet.

Over the past six years, Collins said he thinks the CEO has made progress but that there is still a way to go. He pointed to societal factors as part of the ongoing issue of the recruitment approach, namely the relatively high number of minority students who don’t apply to college, especially those who don’t apply to schools considered competitive like the University.

“It’s a complicated issue, and an easy, direct yes or no type of answer is probably not appropriate,” he said. “We have lots of recruitment efforts underway — our admissions staff does an excellent job in getting out to high schools, summer programs, we do reach students in high schools, try to cultivate interest in going to college and so forth. At the same time, what we know is that many first generation, low income students, or underrepresented minority students, who perform well in high school apply to no college whatsoever.”

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The Black Student Union's MLK Day demonstration sought to bring attention to the decreasing enrollment of minority students. (Allison Farrand/Daily)

Ongoing initiatives

As Michigan’s affirmative action ban moved from district court, to state court, to a six-month wait before the Supreme Court, and also amid renewed student protests such as BBUM, the University broadened its efforts in the two other steps of the admissions process — admittance and conversion — and beyond into addressing the climate on campus.

Last spring, the University’s Board of Regents appointed two new administrators — Robert Sellers, vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion Kedra Ishop, associate vice president for enrollment management.

In an e-mail interview in early October, Sellers pointed to several factors as representative of the diversity, equity and inclusivity in his job title, including both recruitment and retention not only of students, but also staff and faculty, along with improving their campus experience.

Earlier this year, Sellers chaired the newly formed Provost’s Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which released a report in May. The committee was structured to continue the work started by the original 2007 Blueprints on Diversity task force, which spawned the CEO, among other initiatives.

The committee’s May report set out 13 recommendations, touching directly on student recruitment, but also including accountability, campus climate, and retention for both faculty and students.

“While outreach and pipeline programs hold a great deal of promise, they are not the magic elixir or cure-all,” Sellers wrote in the e-mail interview. “We need to employ multiple strategies to address these issues. Some strategies provide short-term gains, while other strategies are focused on the long haul. There are many people at UM who have shown tremendous dedication to making this university more diverse for a very long time; however, we need to do a lot more and I am confident that we will.”

The report identified several concerns with the way the University does minority recruitment currently. One of its primary recommendations was increased coordination among different offices, which is similar to what Ishop was hired to do a month later.

In an e-mail interview in early October, Ishop, the former director of admissions at the University of Texas, Austin, an institution that has also been dealt with an affirmative action ban, emphasized the importance of looking at the admissions process as a whole, as opposed to focusing on specific parts. Her stated job description is to facilitate increased coordination between the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the Office of Financial Aid, the Registrar and the Office of New Student Programs.

“Opportunity exists in cultivating an applicant pool, engaging with and enrolling students and families who are admitted, and supporting students throughout their UM experience in such a way that allows Michigan, through a holistic and defensible process, to present a student body of leaders that is representative of Michigan's longstanding commitment to diversity,” Ishop wrote. “The emphasis cannot be reduced to one or the other, but is on a strategic, focused, and campus-wide engagement with moving toward, and forward on, that commitment.”

Other conclusions from the report prompted the tracking of more data so that progress could be properly evaluated, negative consequences for individual units not promoting diversity and more training around what is and what is not legally possible under Proposal 2. The end purpose, according to the report, was to create a strategic plan of diversity for the University.

In an interview, University Provost Martha Pollack said the plan was still under review by University President Mark Schlissel and subsequent policy decisions would likely be released this semester.

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Kinesiology junior Capri'Nara Kendall participates in the BSU's demonstration in January. (Allison Farrand/Daily)

Beyond the numbers

Since the release of the latest enrollment data, the University’s Black enrollment still currently hovers around 5 percent, capping off a decade-plus long slide in percentage.

However, many of the University’s initiatives are long term with impacts that won’t be visible for multiple year, Sellers, Ishop and Collins all pointed out, especially those launched during the last school year and even those started back in 2006-2008.

Whether they’ll be able to fix the problem eventually is unclear, especially when it comes to the BSU’s goal of 10 percent — a mandate that technically, under Proposal 2, the University is unable to directly aim for, because it constitutes a quota.

“Could it happen? Yes, it could,” Collins said of achieving 10 percent. “But I think that means working closely with some school districts. I think it may mean the admissions office giving a broader look at characteristics that students bring with them. I’m not saying they don’t do that now, but such things such as your leadership— we’re the leaders and best, so one could theoretically say that if you were president of your class, we could give you some extra consideration.”

For now, though, the low numbers still matter, even if the University is working to change them.

Reed said in talking to a potential student about attending the University, given his experience on campus, he would highlight two things — both that the numbers have a presence, but also that there’s a lot the University has to offer.

“The statistics — you can’t really fight numbers,” Reed said. “It’s real. It’s a real thing, and you will feel it. I would definitely never sugarcoat that. I feel like that’s also part of what makes our experience unique. I would also tell that student that if you do choose to come here, there are a lot of things that the University does have at your disposal.”