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Minority Enrollment

Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; 12:00 PM

A decline in the number of incoming black students has been recorded at many state universities across the country, from California to Georgia to much of the Midwest. The trend has alarmed and puzzled college admissions officers, who place great importance on targeting and recruiting talented minorities.

Universities Record Drop In Black Admissions, (Post, Nov. 22)


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Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs was online Monday, Nov. 22, at Noon ET, to discuss the decline in the number of incoming African-American students at state universities around the country.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Michael Dobbs: Thanks for joining me for this on-line chat. I am happy to answer your questions about my article today, on declining numbers of African-American freshmen at some top state universities, or any other education subject on your minds.

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Clifton, Va.: Has minority enrollment declined at private universities? If it has increased maybe minority studetns are going to private schools where finacial aid is better even when taking into account the tuition costs.
Instead of worrying about this educators should concentrate on making sure all students who want to go to college from any socio- economic group are qualified to do so.
Then they can provide the assistance for these students to go to school.

Michael Dobbs: Some private universities have seen modest increases in minority enrollment. As I mentioned in my piece, there is intense competition between schools to recruit so-called "underrepresented minorities," chiefly African-Americans and Hispanics, but the pool of applicants with good grades and SATs or ACTs has not been growing very rapidly.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Personally, I think we should look for a good education -- period. Forget about a lot of these big name schools. Many of them are overrated. I grew up in the south and for the most part my family has attended historically black colleges. In my parent's day they went because it was education without the headaches and hassles. For me, my brothers, and sisters was was because we could get a good education at a reasonable price. We all went to HBCU's in either Georgia and Florida. The classes were small and the teachers actually knew me and they knew my family. I hope to send my daughter to one in four years. My son goes to a small state college here in Indiana.

I wondered if you had any data on enrollment trends at HBCUs?

Michael Dobbs: You make some good points. Many students, whether they are minority or not, are looking for alternatives to the big name schools. I have not looked into the historically black colleges in detail, but I think their enrollment trends are holding up well. The minority students I talked to at Michigan told me that many of their friends applied to HBCUs, because they thought they either wouldn't get into Michigan or were intimidated by the applications process.

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Stafford Va: What exactly is the decline attributed to? Are fewer African American high school students college-ready?

Michael Dobbs: There are many reasons for the recent decline. Some of it is probably temporary: whenever a school changes its admissions procedures, there is a decline in applications. But admissions officers also complain about a limited applicant pool, particularly from inner city high schools. High schools in Detroit, and other big cities, are producing fewer college-ready applicants, according to some admissions officers. This reflects the move of the middle class-both majority and minority-out of the big cities.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Here at UNC-Chapel Hill, the flagship state U in N.C., it seems there is a clear decline in the number of males of any background on campus. Is this occurring within the African-American demographic as well?

What do leading experts think the causes of this phenomenon are, and what possible remedies exist?

Michael Dobbs: The declining number of males on campus is another interesting story. I hate to advertise the competition, but there is a good piece on this in the LA Times today. We have written about this phenomenon in the past, and perhaps we should return to it. In many ways, girls are more focussed in high school. In science and math, however, girls are still in the minority.

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Virginia: What's the point of your article? Are you a liberal guilty of being white?

Michael Dobbs: It seemed like an interesting subject. Given the outcome of the Supreme Court case, you would expect minority enrollments to remain pretty much stable since the court upheld the underlying principle of affirmative action. Instead we have seen a sharp decline at Michigan, which was the focal point of the Supreme Court case. Seems like that is a phenomenon worth exploring, whether you are liberal or conservative, white or black.

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Arlington, Va.: Back when the University of California schools were wrestling with the elimination of affirmative action, there was talk that minority enrollment might then increase at California's second-tier public university system -- the Cal State schools. Is there any evidence that minority enrollment may be dropping at some state schools but rising at other, possibly lower-tier, public schools within the same state?

Michael Dobbs: Yes, this does seem to be happening to some extent. It's not only the minorities who are being squeezed out of the state flagships, it's lower income groups in general. The number of Pell Grant (federal aid) recipients at the leading state universities is declining. It is going up at second-tier public schools and community colleges. Some experts think this points to a growing stratification of higher education.

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Manassas, Va.: As a high school teacher, this trend is not suprising at all. The attitude in the U.S. for many students and their families; not just black is a sense of uselessness for education. "What good is it?" said one student and another posed the question "What's the point if I ain't got the money and I hate school?" No matter how inspiring or supportive I try to be, they are taught at home that it doesn't help if you are in a bad situation outside of school. Public education, as much as I love teaching kids, has become a joke in the United States. And since we have the most advanced college system in the world and a joke of a public system, one will begin to affect the other. I wish I had an answer, but for all I have tried in the classroom, higher education means so little to so many of my students, and now, it's wearing on me as it wears on the students.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for your perspective. I would be interested in hearing more about your experiences, if you would like to contact me at dobbsm@washpost.com.

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Somewhere in Ohio: OK, Mr. Dobbs, bottom line, what can we do? I work in admissions for a private college that has bent over backwards, and spent huge amounts of money, trying to attract minority students, with limited success. A much higher percentage of those who do enroll, even those with decent grades and test scores, need remedial help than is true of the student body as a whole. It's a chicken/egg conundrum -- minorities are not comfortable in part because there are so few of them, and they leave for schools where they feel more comfortable, thus continuing the problem. And we have backlash, mostly from whites, but including from some minority students, faculty and alums, who oppose what they view as favoritism.

Michael Dobbs: Ditto to above. Drop me an e-mail, if you are ready to discuss in more detail. As you suggest, this is a complicated subject, and there are no easy answers.

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Charlottesville, Va: I was disappointed that there wasn't a better discussion of why schools like the University of Maryland and University of Virginia are continuing to see steady enrollment numbers.

I know UVa recently rolled out a new financial aid access program, and UVa also has historically excellent graduations rates for African-American students.

Michael Dobbs: I agree with you that we should look more closely at our local schools. I cover national education issues. Amy Argetsinger used to cover local higher education, but left to go to California: we will soon appoint a new reporter to cover this beat.

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Washington, D.C.: How does the percentage of in/out of state students play into this? For example, state schools are often limited to a certain percentage of out of state students they can accept. What happens when the percentage of in-state residents that are African-American is low versus high?

Michael Dobbs: I believe that African-Americans account for around 15 per cent of the population of Michigan, but less than five per cent of incoming freshmen at the University of Michigan. Michigan is unlike some state universities in that it accepts a lot of out of state students. The tuition fees for out-of-state students are, however, much higher than for in-state students, and there is less financial aid available for needy students.

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Virginia: Hello. I work for the disabled student office. Under the ADA, it is illegal to ask "whether are you disabled?" on admission forms and thus we have fewer students with disabilities. On the other hand, colleges and universities are required to have affirmation action for minority groups but the Department of Education does not enforce this even from the Clinton years.

Michael Dobbs: Interesting. You seem to be saying that colleges and universities should have affirmative action for the disabled?

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Germantown, Md.: If one can get into the Yale and nepotism can take him to the White House then why don't other ordinary citizens have the same privileges? Legacy and nepotism are no different than the affirmative action. The hypocrisy is that one group is the ruler, holding the power, and having the guts to tell the other group that they are having an unjust demand. Law should protect the ordinary citizens till we have a just society, fair for all. Michael Dobbs: It is true that many universities have legacy programs, which are basically affirmative action programs for the rich. In many ways, the university admissions system is stacked in favor of the wealthy and well-connected. There are also affirmative action programs for minorities and low-income groups. Some would argue that it is the middle class that is getting squeezed out of the good schools.

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Maryland: Hello. Do you have any statistics on the military service academies (West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Srpings, King's Point)?

Michael Dobbs: Not immediately, but it is worth looking into.

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Washington, D.C.: I read in the Chronicle of Education that some colleges are bending the rules to admit more men, because female undergraduates are in the majority at many places. So it is not only African-Americans, but every single group.

Michael Dobbs: To some extent, contrary to what i said in my last answer, everybody is getting squeezed out of the best colleges because of the explosion in the college-going population. But there are lots of good colleges below the absolute top tier.

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Richmond, Va.: My wife and I have adopted two Asian children. We are white-anglos. Will they be able to apply for ethnic-minority scholarships, grants and considerations?

Michael Dobbs: Ethnic minority scholarships seem to be on the way out, partly as a result of the Supreme Court decision, and are being replaced by aid to "disadvantaged" or "underrepresented" groups. You would have to show that your children are "disadvantaged" or "underrepresented" in some way.

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Oakton, Va.: Michael --

In your article, you state that only 1,877 African American students scored higher than 1300 on their SAT last year. How can I find that same statistic for Hispanic students? Michael Dobbs: The College Board has these statistics, and publish some information on their website, www.collegeboard.com. They generally cooperate with journalists when asked for informnation, but may not respond to individual inquiries.

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Frederick, Md.: Many kids in my daughter's class last year, regardless of race, could not afford to go to a four-year college. Their option was the community college for 1-2 years and then transfer. Did you look at enrollment numbers for local (two-year) colleges?

Also at least in Maryland we seem to have upped the ante -- the state schools are getting harder to get into even if you can afford it.

And finally are some parents/kids overwhelmed by the whole process? The paper work just to apply is multi-page and the financial aid info almost requires a CPA.

Michael Dobbs: It's true that the applications process has become very intimidating, particularly when you have to fill up different applications to different colleges. In Britain, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, all universities in the country use a single admissions form: students write down their top six choices and the universities pool the information. It's a good system, although it would be difficult to institute here, given the number of private schools and the differences between state admissions requirements.

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Maryland: Jet and Essence had articles where black females made up 70 percent of black undergraduate students nationwide. Some medical and law schools only have black females and no black males.

Michael Dobbs: That's a further twist to the story. It would be interesting to have further breakdowns by gender, in addition to ethnic group, i agree with you.

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USA: Re: Disabled. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has no affirmative action requirement, but Section 501 for the federal government does.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks

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Greenville, N.C.: Does the growing disparity in incomes between the wealthy and others concern you? Given this disparity, the rich can send their kids to effective private schools while the poor and the middle class are herded into less effective public schools that have been made parsimonious by tax cuts for the wealthy. The net result is much less competition for the rich and a self-perpetuating ponzi scheme.

Michael Dobbs: I am interested in the larger question over whether America is become a more or less egalitarian society, in the sense of equality of opportunity, than it was 50 years ago. The number of college students has increased enormously over this period. On the other hand, we have also seen a stratification of the higher ed system, which I referered to earlier. This is most evident at the level of the state flagships, such as Michigan, UVA, UMD. They are all becoming elite schools, in some ways.

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New York, N.Y.: I recently read that there is a significant achievement gap between African-born and American-born black students at our institutions of higher education. Have you encountered data or reports to this effect? Are there significant socio-economic disparities between the two groups that would help explain the gap?

Michael Dobbs: I have not looked into this myself, but it is an interesting subject.

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Cheverly, Md.: Historically, black colleges and universities will benefit from this and become stronger as a result. I've seen that in the quality of students at my alma mater, Howard Univ. They've got Rhodes scholars and higher SATs than during my tenure in the early 90s. Therefore, I don't think it's a concern unless overall enrollment in college is down.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for your input.

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