Commentary: Why African Americans Are Shying Away From Top Colleges

After blows to affirmative action, black applications are off. Here's why

A troubling trend is emerging in the halls of higher learning. After nearly 30 years of rising African-American enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities, blacks are turning their backs on some of the country's elite institutions. At the University of California at Berkeley, 10% fewer blacks sought entry for the fall term this year than last; applications at the University of Michigan have dropped 25%. While some, such as Northwestern University, report a rise in black applicants, educators say numerous historically diverse public schools throughout the country are seeing a drop. "This is of serious concern," says William B. Harvey, director of the Center for Advancement of Racial & Ethnic Equity.

But it should surprise nobody. After all, the red flag came last June when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the affirmative-action program at the University of Michigan unconstitutional. Public schools like Michigan can consider race but, as they weigh applications, officials can't use such mechanical means as awarding extra points to minority students. So schools have restructured applications to ask more questions about family income and the sorts of cultural experiences that will enrich campus diversity. Outreach, in many cases, now focuses on income rather than race. Still, schools are struggling to battle the perception among blacks that affirmative action has been killed. And that perception, educators say, has shrunk the pool of black applicants.

But the restructuring of affirmative action isn't the only problem. The number of school reps recruiting in poorer neighborhoods has also declined sharply because state budget crunches have slashed outreach and funding programs. Moreover, blacks have been hit hard by steadily rising tuitions that are far outpacing increases in the college grants reserved for low-income students. All of this has created a "chilling effect" on black students, says Richard W. Black, assistant vice-chancellor for admissions and enrollment at Berkeley. Getting black admissions up is imperative. Here's how:

HELP WITH ADMISSIONS Universities such as Michigan and Ohio State University responded to the Supreme Court ruling by adding short essay questions to their applications. Students are asked to discuss how they can add to campus diversity or how they have overcome obstacles. Michigan is also holding seminars on what makes a good answer to the questions, educating high school counselors on how to help applicants, and recruiting more students to mentor new applicants. More schools should do that, too.

BOOST PUBLIC FUNDING California has cut school funding to the bone, forcing UC schools, for example, to hike tuition 14% this year. Reviving grants that cover enrollment fees for low-income students is crucial. At the same time, more money needs to be pumped into federally funded Pell Grants, which aren't keeping pace with tuition hikes. Without access to resources that help them attend college, say educators, blacks simply won't apply.

CREATE EFFECTIVE OUTREACH Much of Northwestern's success stems from aggressive recruiting at black high schools. While that's harder for public universities to do, schools should lean on the private sector to fund such initiatives as OSU's Young Scholars Program. It puts 120 promising low-income sixth graders on a college track. Universities also would do well to mimic a program at Rutgers University. There the student NAACP chapter took matters into its own hands by organizing a weekend-long event that allows 30 to 60 high school students to ask questions about the financial aid and admissions policies and campus life at the New Brunswick (N.J.) university. "We felt like there's a problem because people aren't coming here," says Lauren D. Byrd, a 19-year-old junior and president of the student NAACP program. "We felt it was our duty to show them what Rutgers can do for them."

Actually, Lauren, it's the responsibility of everyone -- schools, students, parents, and legislators -- to make sure African Americans don't turn their backs on higher ed.

By Roger O. Crockett

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