A Search for Diversity ; the University of Northern Iowa Has Struggled to Draw Minorities to Its Largely White Campus. So This Year, It Made Hispanic Students from Texas an Eye-Catching Offer

Article excerpt

To Leslie Prieto, life this fall has the dreamlike feel of a Cinderella story.

The Texas native couldn't have easily anticipated landing on the lush green campus at the University of Northern Iowa. Nor would she have expected to be one of only about 660 minority students on a campus of nearly 14,000.

But as part of a bold experiment in boosting campus diversity, UNI persuaded her and 16 other Hispanic students from a San Antonio junior college to trade the sun-baked vistas of south Texas for this largely Caucasian corner of the Midwest, complete with its bone-chilling winters.

To do that required a very big carrot. And UNI was prepared to offer one: a full ride - grants for tuition and room and board - to attend the highly ranked, four-year university.

"I never thought it would be a reality," she says. "When I heard that I might be coming here, it was too good to be true. My father couldn't believe it. We just didn't have the money."

Diversity is an increasingly high priority on many American campuses. Despite recent rollbacks in affirmative-action programs, many schools still cite a racially mixed student body as a key part of the educational experience they offer.

UNI's is one of the most unusual and ambitious campus diversity plans in the United States. It's also part of a much broader statewide mandate to diversify Iowa's workforce and bolster its economy by luring new people, especially minorities.

But achieving that can be difficult, particularly for public schools in states with little diversity in the general population.

It has been a tough problem for UNI. Yet two years ago, part of the answer occurred to financial aid director Roland Carrillo and assistant admissions director Juanita Wright - both Hispanic.

Each had lived in San Antonio years earlier. It seemed suddenly obvious to try harder to tap San Antonio's large Hispanic population through Palo Alto College - a two-year institution there.

UNI already had an agreement with Palo Alto to fully transfer college credits. Yet Palo Alto students hardly used it.

High costs, long distances

The key barriers: cost and family priorities. Most Palo Alto students could not afford UNI. Even if they could, their tradition- bound parents were unlikely to let them go so far from home, both Mr. Carrillo and Ms. Wright say.

"We value diversity and we've tried for years to increase our minority enrollment," Carrillo says. "Now we have this golden pipeline [from San Antonio]." He's quick to add that a range of UNI students receive grants as part of the diversity effort.

"We're recruiting in all markets," he says. "The institution is just taking extra steps to make diversity happen on this campus - and this is an example."

But opening that "pipeline" required two radical steps. In 1998, UNI plunged ahead, announcing that any Palo Alto student with good grades soon to complete a two-year associate's degree could apply to transfer to UNI. If accepted, they would get a full ride akin to what top athletes might expect.

It was an enticing offer to students for whom the $1,000 tuition at Palo Alto was steep. Even nearby University of Texas, at about $3,000 a year, was beyond the reach of many of them. UNI was offering to cover all of the out-of-state student costs, totaling more than $12,000.

Yet that year, there was just one taker for UNI's offer. Carrillo and Wright quickly decided money alone was not enough. The parents of those close-knit families had to see for themselves that their kids were in good hands and a nondiscriminatory learning environment.

So last fall, Carrillo and Wright told an audience of parents and students in the Palo Alto gym that the university would also pay transportation and hotel costs to bring any interested student - and a parent - to visit UNI for a week. …