The New Complexion of Retention Services: Attacks against Race-Sensitive Admission Policies Are Prompting Many Campuses to Refocus Retention Programs That Once Targeted Minority Students

By Collison, Michele | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

The New Complexion of Retention Services: Attacks against Race-Sensitive Admission Policies Are Prompting Many Campuses to Refocus Retention Programs That Once Targeted Minority Students


Collison, Michele, Black Issues in Higher Education


The New Complexion of Retention Services: Attacks against race-sensitive admission policies are prompting many campuses to refocus retention programs that once targeted minority students

While opponents of affirmative action programs wage their very public batfie to dismantle university programs that consider race as a factor in admissions, colleges and universities around the country are quietly modifying their retention programs for minority students so that these initiatives do not meet a similar fate.

Several administrators say universities are dropping race as a criteria for participating in cultural and academic programs that were created to increase the chances that Black, Latino, and Native American students would graduate from traditionally White universities.

"Universities are quietly modifying programs that might make obvious targets," says Isaac Colbert, senior associate dean for graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who believes many universities are still committed to building and maintaining environments where students feel comfortable.

From the outset, many of the retention programs -- although targeted to Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans -- have always accepted White students, administrators say. MIT's program to increase the number of minority students in graduate science and engineering programs, for example, has always admitted some White students, Colbert says. But the university decided to drop racial language from descriptions and advertising of the program.

"In the current climate, you can't say this program is for Black, Hispanic, or Native American students," says S. Gordon Moore Jr., director of the Georgia Institute of Technology's Office of Minority Education.

Like MIT, Moore says White students have always been a part of Georgia Tech's program. Still, many university attorneys have advised administrators to change the language of their minority retention programs so that the initiatives are not perceived as discriminating on the basis of race.

"It's changed the whole way we had to approach our program," Moore says. "But we're trying to position ourselves so we don't ever feel the wrath of anti-affirmative action groups."

More Inclusion Needed

Campuses that opt to make their programs more inclusive face the challenge of doing so without eroding the level of service they offer to students of color.

"We were just not interested in getting into a legal battle," says Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Hrabowski created the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program to increase the number of Black students who pursue careers in science and engineering. The university decided to change the program three years ago after a federal court ruled that the University of Maryland-College Park could no longer give out scholarships on the basis of race. Now all students are eligible to apply to the Meyerhoff program, but they must demonstrate an interest in working with underrepresented groups.

"We are still supporting African American success in the sciences, but we are also training a broader group of students who have the time to think about issues of race," he says.

Today, 70 percent of the Meyerhoff scholars are Black, while 30 percent are White and Asian.

Though the current examination of retention programs is jarring, some welcome a chance to focus attention on programs that have been viewed as little more than "babysitting" services on campus. …

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