Universities post record minority enrollments

Saturday, November 22, 2008 | 7:18 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — When Kameron Mack was choosing a college, he considered two: predominantly black Clark Atlanta University and the predominantly white University of Kansas.

The University of Kansas won out.

After a recruiter visited a college fair at Mack's church and he considered the education he would get as a journalism major, Mack set aside his trepidations about life as an African-American on a mostly white campus.

"I thought maybe I'd get a more comfortable education at Clark," Mack said. "But for what I want to do, KU was a better school. I can't let race or fear come in the way of that."

This fall, Mack joined the second-largest group of African-American freshmen in KU history. In fact, the university's African-American freshman class grew by 28 percent this year, and the number of freshman Latino students increased by 23 percent.

Overall, the university this year has the most racially diverse student body in school history.

Universities in Kansas and Missouri — and nationwide — posted record minority enrollments this year, thanks in part to the diverse freshmen classes they were able to attract.

— At MU, minorities in the freshman class increased by 27 percent, with African-American and Latino freshmen groups each growing by 27 percent — record highs.

— At Kansas State University, a 40 percent increase in Latino freshmen and record high numbers of African-American freshmen helped push the school's total minority enrollment to its highest levels ever.

— The University of Missouri-Kansas City posted a 6.1 percent gain in its total minority enrollment and a 17 percent increase in Hispanic freshmen.

The gains this year are impressive, but recruiters acknowledge they have more work to do. For example, African-Americans make up just 5.6 percent of MU's student body and only 3.5 percent of KU's.

As a proportion of all students, MU's multicultural enrollment actually has stayed flat in the past 10 years.

And that 17 percent increase in Hispanic freshmen at UMKC? It was a jump from 35 Latino students to 41 — out of a class of 1,007 students.

"We have a long way to go," said Lee Furbeck, who is in charge of multicultural recruitment at KU.

Universities have long embraced the need for diverse student bodies. They want to reflect society for their students. They see a responsibility to give all students the benefit of a college degree. And the more diverse the campus is, the more likely they are to keep the minorities they recruit.

The efforts have paid off nationwide. The number of minority students grew by 50 percent from 1995 to 2005, according to a recently released study of minorities in higher education.

"It's encouraging news, but hardly surprising," said Mikyung Ryu, the study's author, explaining that demographic shifts have made high schools more diverse. Also, more students understand the need for a college degree.

In recent years, universities have hired more recruiters and focused some recruiters on targeting minorities. They've conducted more events geared toward minorities and sent recruiters to talk to younger and younger students.

Kansas State University sponsors events to teach first-time college families about financial aid and scholarship and housing applications, said Pat Bosco, vice president of student life.

Its most powerful tools are students and alumni, including multicultural ambassadors, who spread the word about how well students are treated at Kansas State, said Bosco, who gives his home phone number to freshmen parents.

One KU recruiter is in charge of reaching students as young as sixth grade to help get them ready for college, said Furbeck, associate director of the office of admissions and scholarships.

Recruiters offer minority students the same bragging points they tell others, said Chuck May, MU senior associate director of admissions. They urge them to visit campus.

And they specifically sell minorities on the scholarship benefits, the opportunities at MU and how friendly the campus is, May said.

The university has recruiters who live in Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City, May said.

A Chicago recruiter reached out to Lauren Foreman, now a junior, and won over her and about 10 of her Morgan Park High School classmates. All but one was black, Foreman said.

Even before the recruiter visited, Foreman knew she wanted to go to MU's Journalism School. But it helped that she had a built-in support system coming with her.

The low numbers of minorities at MU — about one in 10 students — can be disheartening, Foreman said. The silver lining is that the black community is small and tight-knit.

"I feel really close with the black community here," Foreman said.

Not all minority students feel so welcome on campus. A UMKC audit released in 2006 described the school's racial climate as poor for African-American and Hispanic students.

LaKeshia Moore came to the university from St. Louis. Many of the black freshmen in her class have since left the school, she said. But she has made the most of her college experience, getting involved in student government, a sorority and the African-American Student Union.

"If I was the only black student, I knew I wanted to come to school to get an education," said Moore, a junior. "I looked around and (thought), 'These are my peers. They're coming to school for the same thing.'"

UMKC has worked to make its student body and faculty more diverse and friendlier to minorities.

Last year, it hired Alex Lopez as coordinator of multicultural recruitment. Lopez spends time in urban schools on both sides of the state line to persuade inner-city students to further their education, whether at UMKC or elsewhere.

The university has events for African-American and Hispanic high school sophomores, the population most at risk for dropping out, Lopez said. He also has a conference for African-American males, who are especially scarce on college campuses.

The limited pool of minority high school students is the biggest obstacle, recruiters said.

High-achieving students are recruited like crazy. And that's why it's so important to connect with younger students, said Furbeck of KU.

"If we have more students who are better prepared for college, that's going to increase the numbers of multicultural students not just here but at other institutions as well," Furbeck said.

Mack, who is from Wichita, is glad he chose KU. He already is an executive board member of the Black Student Union, but he is also part of the University Dance Company, an organization he described as "all white."

His fears that he would not fit in or be accepted at the university have not been realized.

"I don't think it was as big of a deal as I made it out to be," Mack said.

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Ellis Smith November 23, 2008 | 10:20 a.m.

This is a subject about which the educational establishment AND the public (in the case of public universities and colleges)should always be of TWO minds:

We should recognize all improvements and offer congratulations where they're warranted, but...

We should never say that what we are presently doing is GOOD ENOUGH.

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