Diversity at UNF Makes Slow Gains; Affirmative Action Decision Puts Spotlight on Minority Enrollment

Article excerpt

Byline: Beth Kormanik, Times-Union staff writer

It's not unusual for Jermaine Marshall to enter a classroom at the University of North Florida and be the only black student.

Walking around campus, "when we see someone of our own race, we get excited," because it doesn't happen that often, said Marshall, a junior from Jacksonville and a graduate of Paxon School for Advanced Studies.

Marshall has followed the University of Michigan's affirmative action lawsuits, which concluded Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court decided universities may consider race as one factor when admitting students.

A "critical mass" of minorities in college classrooms ensures "underrepresented minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority opinion upholding affirmative action at Michigan's law school.

In an accompanying decision, the court struck down a points system that gave minority applicants to Michigan's undergraduate school a statistical edge.

While Marshall, the assistant director of UNF's African American Student Union, celebrated the opinion, he knew it would mean little for Florida. UNF stopped using race in admissions more than a decade ago, and all of Florida's universities abandoned affirmative action under a directive from Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

Instead, Florida students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school class are guaranteed admission into a state university. The "Talented 20" plan does not guarantee students will get into their top-choice school, however. Bush also encouraged schools to work harder at recruiting minority students and to offer more financial aid.

Leaders at the University of Texas at Austin, which also uses a percentage plan, announced their intentions to reintroduce affirmative action. But Bush said Florida would "stay the course" and maintain race-neutral admissions.

But there are complications on both sides of the Talented 20 program.

SLIGHT IMPROVEMENTS

To invoke Talented 20, a student must be denied by three state universities. Then a state official will call other universities to find one that will accept that student. The process can be costly: application fees usually cost $20 to $30 apiece, although colleges will waive fees for needy students. The process also can be demoralizing.

"Once students get denied by three schools, they may get discouraged," said Jonathan Bishop, UNF's coordinator of minority recruitment and special programs.

On the college's part, the list of Talented 20-eligible students arrives too late to use. Deborah Kaye, assistant vice president for enrollment services, said UNF received the list of eligible high schools students in May. That's graduation time at Jacksonville-area schools.

Most college-bound students have made plans by then, and state colleges already have admitted much of their freshman classes. Students who applied late to UNF this year had a tougher time getting in because officials capped its enrollment this year because of budget cuts.

"Because we get the official list so late it's very hard to use that list for any really proactive recruitment," Kaye said. "We would love to have that list earlier. We try to do our best guessing and estimating who those students will be."

In many cases, it doesn't matter. Kaye said many Talented 20 kids would have met UNF admissions criteria anyway. Unqualified students undergo a review process where they might get a second shot at admissions. Kaye did not know the number of students admitted solely through Talented 20 but said it's "not a lot."

The Florida Department of Education does not record the number of students who ask for help under the Talented 20 program after being rejected from three state schools, said spokeswoman Frances Marine.

Despite increased recruitment efforts, minority enrollment at UNF has only made slight increases over the past five years and the school remains less diverse than others in the state. …