By Erik Rodriguez
In the marathon to attract minority students to Texas colleges, Joanne Smith is near the head of the pack, and she and her colleagues at Southwest Texas State University don’t plan to slow down.
Since 1992, Hispanics have made up roughly a fifth of the campus population -- last year, the university enrolled more than 4,200 Hispanics out of 23,517 students. In recent years, the San Marcos institution has hustled to add an admissions counselor in heavily Hispanic South Texas and to introduce an on-campus program to make Hispanic students more comfortable in a college setting.
“We’re trying to attract as diverse a population of students as best we can,” said Smith, the university’s associate vice president of student affairs. “We’re letting them know what our environment is like here.”
Texas colleges and universities are enrolling more minorities, but not enough to keep pace with state goals or booming population growth. School administrators and state officials say they’re working to lure more minorities in the still-lingering wake of Hopwood, the 1996 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals banning colleges and universities from considering race in admissions. Educators fear Texas could fall behind other states in its share of minorities holding college degrees.
Since 1992, African American and Hispanic enrollment in Texas colleges has grown more than 67 percent, to 340,000 in 2000. Nationally, that figure has grown at a similar rate, about 63 percent from 1988 to 1998, according to the American Council on Education.
But at many of Texas’ public four-year universities, including SWT, the proportion of minority students has stayed mostly flat. The problem is especially acute at the state’s flagships, the University of Texas and Texas A&M.
More than 50,000 new students enrolled in a Texas institution of higher education last year, the largest number of new enrollees in more than 25 years. Nearly two-thirds of those new enrollees were minorities, and a large number of those were Hispanic. However, although 15,419 Hispanics entered college last fall, that’s still about 5,000 short of state goals, according to a recent report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
African American enrollment at four-year institutions is up 21 percent since 1992, but Hopwood has clearly had an impact. African American enrollment at UT and Texas A&M has declined since 1997, a year after Hopwood dismantled affirmative action policies in Texas.
“We’re glad to see the increase, but when you go in and specifically look at our targets we’ve given ourselves, we can’t be too optimistic,” said David Gardner, the Coordinating Board’s assistant commissioner for planning and information resources.
In 1999, Texas education officials devised a higher education plan, called Closing the Gaps, to attract students of all races. The plan calls for a statewide enrollment of 1.5 million students by 2015 and sets goals for increases in research funding, graduation rates and the quality of institutions and degree programs.
The plan is starting to pay off. Last year, statewide enrollment was at 1.1 million, an increase over the previous year. But without the ability to consider race in admissions, administrators say, efforts to attract minorities have been hampered. Even the 1998 enactment of the state’s top 10 percent law, which requires public institutions to accept students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, hasn’t solved the problem of luring enough minority students.
“It may have been a call to attention, a reminder that we weren’t doing as well as we would have liked prior to Hopwood,” Gardner said.
Much of last year’s growth in statewide enrollment was at institutions in South Texas and at community colleges. Colleges in the Houston and Dallas areas were particularly successful at attracting minority students. The University of Houston and the University of North Texas have seen minority enrollment rise more than 60 percent in the past 10 years.
At the University of Houston, administrators said they benefit from location; more than 40 percent of Harris County residents are ethnic minorities. Last year, minorities made up nearly two-thirds of the school’s student population. Administrators also turn to local community colleges as feeder schools, as well as to Texas Southern University, a historically black institution.
“We are what many American universities are going to have to look like in the years ahead, if the population of the U.S. is going to be served,” said Arthur Smith, University of Houston president and system chancellor.
Other institutions, such as UT and A&M, which are not in communities with large minority populations, are having a harder time. Since the 1996 Hopwood decision, African American enrollment has dropped 16 percent at UT and 14 percent at A&M. Hispanic enrollment has not been affected as dramatically.
UT officials offer several reasons for the drop-off in African American enrollment. President Larry Faulkner said most of the decrease was in graduate and professional programs, diluting the overall picture.
Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions, said the decrease could be linked to an applications process, begun in 1997, that requires applicants to write three essays. The university received fewer applications in all ethnic categories.
Faulkner said the university has been working on solutions, such as pre-law clinics that reach out to students at UT-El Paso and UT-San Antonio.
“We’ve been able to invent some things,” he said. “Everything we’ve tried has not worked. We just have to keep working. I remain concerned about participation among graduate students.”
Administrators also are concerned about retaining minority students, said Teresa Graham Brett, UT dean of students. The university has a multicultural center, offers student mentoring and recently added freshman interest groups to accommodate minority students.
“Our student-of-color population isn’t monolithic; there’s not (only) one thing that’s going to meet their needs on campus,” she said. “We really need to look at a broad diversity of programs to fit various students’ needs.”
This fall, A&M is redoubling its efforts to attract minorities. The university considered and then nixed a proposal to accept high school students in low-income areas who graduate in the top 20 percent of their class, said Bill Perry, university executive associate provost.
Instead, counselors are telling minorities and their parents how accessible the university is and touting financial aid and other opportunities, such as the TEXAS grant program.
Private institutions also saw minority interest dry up after Hopwood. At Southwestern University in Georgetown, minority enrollment shrank to a 10-year low in 1998. The university has since lured minorities back, in part by targeting them for alumni scholarships, said John Lind, the university’s vice president for enrollment management. This school expects a record number of first-year minority students to enroll this fall -- 25 percent of the school’s 350-student entering class.
Administrators at St. Edward’s University focus heavily on individual attention for students and specialized programs for niche populations. The university’s critically acclaimed College Assistance Migrant Program, designed to help the children of migrant workers attend college, also has helped.
Brenda Cornejo, a migrant program student, said the individualized approach is what kept her from leaving St. Edward’s.
“There’s 40 of us who come in every year, and they obviously know what I’ve been through,” she said.