University of Florida students Dashari Kearse, 20, right, and Susan Ajayi, 21, chat at the Gainesville school’s Institute of Black Culture. (Willie J. Allen Jr./For The Washington Post )

As he courts Republicans across the country, Jeb Bush boasts that an executive order he signed that ended race-based college admissions in Florida upheld conservative principles while helping minorities.

“We ended up having a system where there were more African American and Hispanic kids attending our university system than prior to the system that was discriminatory,” the former governor and likely presidential contender said recently at a conference of conservative activists.

But at Florida’s two premier universities, black enrollment is shrinking. At the University of Florida in Gainesville and at Florida State University in Tallahassee, administrators say they worry that the trend risks diminishing their standing as world-class universities and hurts the college experience.

The black share of the UF freshman class, for instance, plunged to 6 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. That is down from 9 percent in 2011.

“If we don’t address this in the next two or three years, I think we’re going to have a problem,” said Brandon Bowden, assistant vice president for student affairs at Florida State, which had a 15 percent drop in the number of black freshmen enrolled between 2000 and 2009. “There will be so few black students on our campus that prospective students [who are black] will choose not to come here because they see no one who looks like them.”

Minority enrollment in the Florida state university system

Bush, who is expected to announce a presidential campaign this spring, is the only governor who has signed an order ending affirmative action. Seven other states ban race preferences, but all did so via referendum. Bush’s action in early 2000 thrust him into the forefront of a national debate that continues largely in the courts.

The growth in minority enrollment that Bush now points to is primarily a result of the state’s booming Hispanic population, which has led to a large increase in the share of Hispanic students attending Florida colleges. Between 2000 and 2013, the numbers of Hispanics, African Americans and members of other ethnic groups rose as the state university system got much bigger, with freshman enrollment up 35 percent.

But as a proportion of the overall student population, black enrollment has declined — most notably at UF and FSU. At the time Bush enacted the policy, black students made up 18 percent of all freshmen at Florida colleges. That had dropped to 15 percent by 2009.

State officials said the dwindling numbers seemed more drastic after 2010, when changes to the way the U.S. Education Department classified race made it more likely for minorities to identify as Hispanic or “multiple race.”

Nevertheless, the share of college-age Florida residents identifying themselves as black has remained about 20 percent, while blacks constituted just 13 percent of college freshmen in the state in 2013.

Black students at Florida universities are increasingly concentrated in the state’s lesser-known regional schools, which are in larger cities and have less stringent admissions requirements. The schools benefited from the system Bush enacted to replace affirmative action, which guaranteed spots in the state’s 11 universities to the top 20 percent of graduates from every high school.

Bush declined to comment through his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell. She said Bush tried to boost minorities’ opportunities as governor by expanding college preparatory courses and creating a grant program that directed $23 million to help first-generation college students.

Students at the University of Florida. Affirmative action numbers at Florida state universities have decreased since 2000, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush ended affirmative action by executive order. (Willie J. Allen Jr./For The Washington Post )

“Governor Bush established these programs because he believed it was an economic and moral imperative to ensure every student had the opportunity to achieve high expectations without being held to different standards based on racial preferences,” Campbell said. “Eliminating these preferences allowed students to succeed on their own merits, better preparing them for a competitive global economy.”

Yet, at UF, many black students wonder whether they will ever be judged on merit. Blacks have become such a rarity on campus that many say it is not unusual for strangers to ask whether they attend the nearby community college.

Most were not even in elementary school yet when Bush’s plan was enacted; “affirmative action” to them is little more than a glossary item in a textbook.

“It’s funny they say Jeb Bush ended affirmative action,” said Dashari Kearse, a 20-year-old linguistics major from Orlando who sports a small Afro and wire-rim glasses. “People still think I got in because I’m a minority.”

Bush enacted his One Florida Initiative in 2000 as anti-affirmative-action activist Ward Connerly was gathering signatures to place a state constitutional amendment on Florida’s ballot. Already, Connerly had successfully led ballot initiatives in California and Washington state to ban racial preferences. In Texas, a court had banned affirmative action as well, although the Supreme Court would later invalidate that ruling.

Bush argued that his plan represented a middle ground and would stave off a “divisive” battle. Some saw a political benefit to keeping the issue off the ballot, as well. Doing so averted a campaign that could have mobilized black voters in a key swing state to vote against Bush’s brother, who was favored to become the GOP presidential nominee.

The order, which ended race preferences for college admissions and state contracting, sparked mass demonstrations by black lawmakers and students. Bush accused his critics of clinging to the past. “We will not take one step back in the struggle against racism and discrimination,” he said at the time. “The place we are heading is a place where opportunity is real and lasting, not false and forced by government.”

Back then, student demonstrators from UF and FSU predicted that the program would especially hurt the more prominent campuses. Today, UF officials say they are losing prospective minority students to lesser-known state schools such as the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the University of South Florida in Tampa and Florida International University in Miami, which are reaching out to their diverse communities to draw black and Hispanic students.

When Kenya Lipplett was debating between the top colleges and the University of Central Florida, she said, the choice quickly became clear. Her 3.8 high school grade-point average granted her a bigger scholarship at UCF than it did at the flagship schools, and she preferred the more cosmopolitan feel of Orlando.

“I didn’t see a lot of black people when I visited UF, and that made me very cautious about attending,” Lipplett said. “I didn’t want to feel that I had to put on a mask because I was around people who didn’t understand my culture, and I didn’t want to be a part of some statistic to help their numbers grow.”

On the UF campus, Kearse, the linguistics major from Orlando, gives tours at the Institute of Black Culture, a house with blue shingles across the street from the main campus. It serves as the hub of black student life.

On the first floor on a March afternoon, students sat on a leather couch and watched Prince videos on VH1 Soul. Upstairs, female students pored over magazines and discussed body image. Surrounding them on red, yellow and green walls were framed newspaper clippings depicting the building’s history — “67 blacks arrested” read a headline from April 15, 1971, when black students stormed the president’s office to demand better treatment.

“That’s how we got this house,” Kearse said. “People fought for us to be here.”

Those clippings fostered a sense of pride in the school that some said is now slipping away.

As the number of black students dwindles, a sense of isolation has grown among them, particularly during episodes of perceived prejudice. In December, for instance, students said they felt a familiar resignation after someone defaced a sign they had painted on a campus bridge. The message, “Black Lives Matter,” was painted over with a new phrase: “Thug Lives Don’t Matter.”

On campus, this year’s Black History Month concert was canceled, a multicultural talent show might go away, and an annual step show is losing sponsors because of low attendance.

In 2013, when a campus survey asked whether students “feel respected on campus,” half of the black students said “No.”

UF officials have tried to make the campus more comfortable for minorities. In response to racial incidents, the school created an emergency response team to conduct anti-racism training, said Mary Kay Carodine, UF’s assistant vice president for student affairs.

Administrators also guarantee free tuition and mentorship to 300 first-generation students per class. About 30 percent of those students are black.

The students spoke of some hope after the election of student government leaders — a Latina president, an Asian American vice president and a black treasurer — who might be more sympathetic to programming such as the step show and the talent show.

One of the biggest changes involves the house where the students hang out. A student union expansion, set to open later this year, will include office space for minority groups, including support services now housed at the Institute of Black Culture. Administrators said they hope the increased visibility will lead to more interactions between races, making the campus feel more diverse.

The idea to transform the lone place on campus that feels their own raises optimism and anxiety.

“It’s going to be a good thing because it opens up everyone to get the chance to be a part of our community,” Susan Ajayi, a 21-year-old junior, said as she spoke recently with a group of students at the house.

Then she paused.

“It’s not going to be the same,” she said. “Because this is a place where you get to be your true self and be around people who will not judge. You can’t be as comfortable if you’re seen behind glass.”

Others wondered whether there would even be enough students to justify using both locations. In 1971, the students hoped the house could be used to support their demand to have 500 black freshmen admitted each year. The university now struggles to hit the number, even though total freshman enrollment has tripled since.

“Some people think that if we start using that space, we’ll lose this one,” Kearse said. “But we’re going to make sure this house stays here. People fought for it, and we will fight for it, too. It’s ours.”

Dan Keating and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.