Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Desperately Seeking Students

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Desperately Seeking Students

Article excerpt

Several public flagships attempt to reverse disturbing declines in Black student college enrollment

As high-school seniors begin to choose colleges in the coming months, officials at many public flagships nervously hope that their renewed outreach to Black students reverses steep and disappointing enrollment drops. Those declines, some of them by double-digit percentages, have caused extensive soul searching and near panic among academia's leadership. While experts don't blame any single reason for the numbers tanking in 2004, they agree that the occurrence has underscored the disturbing fact that the pool of high-achieving Black high schoolers remains too small.

Among the 2004 college-bound highschool graduates in the country, 110,000 of them who disclosed their ethnicities on their SATs scored a 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the standardized tests, according to the College Board. Of those, only 2,055 were Black.

Consequently, Ivy League, historically Black colleges, private universities and public institutions court these students as vigorously as football programs recruiting top high-school stars.

"This group is definitely highly sought after," says Dr. Keith Marshall, assistant provost of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where 2004 Black freshmen enrollment fell 32 percent from the previous year. "That's why the yield rates of Blacks at so many schools have always been so low. The most prestigious schools are fighting over these students, and if you're the student, why not go to the best school making the best offer?"

Adds University of Michigan undergraduate admissions director Ted Spencer: "This pipeline of Black students isn't growing. There needs to be more focus on K-12."

Some say that students of color should do more to distinguish themselves to admissions officers. Over the past decade, personal essays have climbed in importance in student applications. Now, the essays rate right behind grades, standardized test scores and high-school curriculum when judging applicants, says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Public flagships "are making the admissions process more mechanical" by giving lots of weight to test scores and grade point averages in order to simply wade through the rising tides of applications overall, he says. That means a student's personal story articulating what he would bring to an institution, as well as what he would gain there himself, is what can separate him from the rest of the pack. Consequently, counselors are encouraging high-school teachers to make students practice writing such essays, and then critique them before they are forced to write them for college applications and SATs.

"The holistic admissions process is important," Hawkins says. "We need to make sure students aren't swept under the rug."

Young people apparently agree. A recent national survey of young adults ages 18 to 25 shows that substantial numbers, including 51 percent of Blacks, believe their high-school teachers and classes should have done more to prepare them for college-level work. More than half of those surveyed across all ethnicities by the Public Agenda research group report a shortage of counselors at their high schools, and nearly half say their counselors had given them so little time that they felt like they were merely another face in the crowd. But the survey indicates that 69 percent of Blacks hold themselves accountable, saying they could have worked harder in high school and paid more attention.

Additionally, about 74 percent of Blacks credit a high-school teacher for taking a personal interest in them and encouraging them to go to college.

So until greater numbers of Black students meet the public flagships' admissions criteria, Spencer puts it this way: "We're competing with the most selective schools for the same well, well, well-qualified students. …

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