U-M Black student enrollment/retention up, but numbers still small


At the beginning of the 2009-’10 school year this fall, the University of Minnesota held welcome-back-to-campus activities for new and returning students. But a local newspaper story published on this event featured a photo that didn’t show any Blacks or students of color participating.

However, U-M officials claim that Black student enrollment and retention is up: 83.4 percent of last year’s Black freshmen returned to school this fall, a four-percent increase from 2008. “Of the African American freshmen enrolled here this fall, 84 percent attended high school in Minnesota,” noted U-M Admissions Director Wayne Sigler.

U-M Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster says the Access To Success (ATS) program, which started in the fall of 2008, is one of several programs designed to help keep Black students at the university. He points out that ATS is not just for students of color: “It brought some focused advising and new curriculum for the ATS students, and [emphasized] the importance of engagement in the campus. I think that has played out in the improved retention rate.”

Another attributing factor McMaster refers to is the expansion of the University of Minnesota Promise Scholarship (U Promise) program. Formerly the Founders Free Tuition Program, it guarantees tuition aid for Minnesota residents with a family income of up to $100,000. He says 6,200 students – 34 percent are students of color – are in the need-based program.

U-M’s overall school enrollment is 51,659, and the total number of Black students has increased from 1,397 in 2007 to 1,490 in 2008. This is partly due to an increase of “a large number of transfers, and a fairly high percentage were students of color,” surmises McMaster.

Sigler explained that the school’s overall goal is to keep overall yearly admissions to a workable level in order to effectively meet all students’ needs, including class size, access to advisors and campus housing availability. “We are not trying to keep students out, but [we try to] make sure that they have a good experience once they are here,” he points out.

All total, over 90 percent of last year’s freshmen returned to school this fall, an improvement from 88.5 percent of a year ago, Sigler reported. “I think that’s the good news story,” he proclaimed. “The students who are coming here are being retained at a higher rate.”

However, among this year’s U-M freshmen students of color (19 percent of all freshmen), only 246 are Black, the lowest in six years. “It does fluctuate from year to year,” admits Sigler, adding that more Black students are coming to the university “academically strong.”

“The average high school rank percentile of African American freshmen in fall 2000 was 59.9 percent, and the class that just came in was 74.9 [percent],” he says. “We have been able to bring in increasingly strong freshmen classes, in terms of their academic preparation. Our goal is to bring in students who we think have a high probability of graduating in four years. To improve the four-year graduation rate for all students is a major goal for the university.”

The university is “making some strides” in retaining Blacks and students of color at the school, says Assistant Vice-President for Equity and Diversity Rickey Hall. Yet, he noted that many students of color say they don’t feel connected to the university. “We are creating ways to create a small community where they feel connected. I think we are starting to have some success, and that’s why we are seeing some gains here.”

His office operates the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE), which was created in 2004. “That unit works primarily on cultural and academic support for historically underrepresented and underserved students of color and first-generation students to try to address some of the support needs,” notes Hall.

MCAE holds a Multicultural Kickoff event for first-year students at the beginning of the school year. “It provides an opportunity for students right away to connect with other new students and returning students, begin to develop those critical friendships and build those critical links with faculty and staff, and learn more about the expectations for them in the classroom,” says Hall.

The Student Excellence in Academics and Multiculturalism (SEAM) offers all first-year students small-group multicultural classes and seminars taught by university faculty, Hall continues. “It fosters a sense of community and promotes academic success and introduces students to new disciplines. We are trying to provide [not only] that academic but also that social integration that we know is crucial.”

Hall says MCAE recently partnered with the school’s financial aid office to “identify students of color” who might need financial assistance for staying in school. “This initiative is designed to increase retention by preventing the students from dropping out due to financial difficulties,” he emphasized. “The multicultural center staff members are proactively contacting these students and offering to work with them to identify any resource that may be available to assist them in paying off the university bills.”

If this proves successful, especially in retaining more Blacks and other students of color, then “this is something that we will have to shift human resources [to]…because this is important,” believes Hall.

MCAE also will introduce a new program specifically tailored for students of color next spring, he added. “We prepared a curriculum that would prepare students for graduate and professional education: The first year, there will be some things that are appropriate for freshmen to start them on the way to think about graduate and professional schools; and there will be some things in their second year. Then in their junior and senior level, they can take a credit-bearing course designed to assist those students.

“First and foremost, by creating this curriculum, what we hope to do is send a message to students that we expect them to obtain their degree,” Hall noted. “Secondly, we expect them to pursue graduate and professional degree[s].”

According to McMaster, school officials are forecasting that the pool of high school graduates from the Upper Midwest will “drop significantly between now and 2014. We are expecting the number of high school graduates in the state of Minnesota will go down nine percent,” he predicts. “Wayne and his staff are very concerned about maintaining our admissions, the application numbers, and enrollment numbers.”

But Sigler affirms that the number of students of color graduating from Upper Midwest high schools will not decrease. “That’s very positive,” he says.
Hall also believes the “U” is committed to diversity among its student body. “We have to be vigilant and make sure that we are moving in the right direction,” he says.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.