Byline: Joe Humphrey, Times-Union staff writer
GAINESVILLE -- As a student leader in the University of Florida's freshman orientation, Daniel Williams met scores of incoming Gators this summer. During a dozen two-day sessions, the junior helped the new crop get ready for life at Florida's flagship university.
Amid all the faces, he noticed an unsettling shortage of black students.
"There's a complete drop-off," said Williams, who is black. "It's startling to look at."
His view is confirmed by UF statistics, which show 1,046 black students were accepted this year compared with 1,671 a year ago. While the university accepted 14 percent fewer freshmen overall, offers to black students tumbled most. That means African-Americans are expected to compose a smaller percentage of the class once school starts next month.
"We're trying to do the best job we can," said UF Provost David Colburn. "So, to get caught in this maelstrom is uncomfortable. All I can say is, we're doing the best job we can."
The maelstrom Colburn speaks of centers on One Florida, an initiative of Gov. Jeb Bush that has changed the way the state's public colleges can admit students. The policy prohibits the use of race in the admissions process, replacing it with more emphasis on an applicant's socio-economic background.
Launched in November 1999, One Florida was Bush's way to deflect California businessman Ward Connerly's push for an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would eliminate affirmative action.
In addition to eliminating racial preferences, One Florida includes a provision that guaranteed admission to the top 20 percent of graduates from Florida's public high schools and required universities to partner with low-performing schools, both efforts to cast a wider net for potential students.
One Florida has college officials, political activists and others keeping a close eye on admissions numbers throughout the 11-university system. And no figures are more scrutinized -- especially by critics -- than those of UF, the state's largest and most prestigious university.
UF is trying to buck precedent set in California and Texas, where the top schools watched minority enrollment sink after the elimination of race-based admissions. The school, with more than 40,000 students, faces an issue with racial and political implications on a national scale.
And it's an issue, despite all the posturing of politicians who take hard-line stances that it's working or it isn't, that defies easy explanation.
Carolyn Herrington, director of Florida Education Policy Studies at Florida State University, said one year's worth of admissions numbers is not enough to judge One Florida.
But she said recent news regarding Talented 20, the component of the program that guarantees admission to the top 20 percent of graduates -- provided they complete 19 core credits -- isn't encouraging.
An analysis of the program shows that only 118 of the 22,500 students in the Talented 20 actually needed it to get into college. The other 99.5 percent had a B average, enough to earn acceptance into the university system, the analysis by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found.
In pitching his plan, Bush said as many as 400 additional minorities would be able to attend college because of Talented 20.
"With 118 students, it looks to me like the upper end of success is modest," said Herrington, a professor of educational leadership. She's part of a new think tank that plans to study One Florida and other education issues in the state.
Another component, though, one that pairs universities with low-performing schools, may prove to be an invaluable way to improve student success. But it won't happen overnight.
"You're trying to change the behavior, attitudes and activities of professionals," Herrington said. "That takes a …