Two panelists at a forum Monday night said a recent apparent decline in the number of African-American students coming to the University of Virginia is primarily due to financial conditions, along with related factors.
Valerie Gregory, associate dean of admission, and Deborah McDowell, director of U.Va.’s Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies, discussed with an audience of about 75 people in the Minor Hall auditorium long-term changes in the economy, politics and education that present obstacles to African-American enrollment.
The scope of the issue is not clear, due to changes in how the race of students is counted.
Determining the number of African-American undergraduates at U.Va. was relatively straightforward in the years prior to 2009. According to University records, there were 1,366 black undergraduates in 1991, for example, and 1,199 in 2008.
But in 2009, new federal guidelines changed how records are collected and maintained about the race of students. Beginning in that year, students were able to select more than one race on University enrollment records. If, for example, a student checked off both “African-American” and “Asian-American,” that student would be recorded in a new category called “Multi-Racial American.” Students who did so were not included in the count for the African-American category.
Partially as a result of the new method, the number of students who solely selected African-American as their race dropped to 946 in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of students reported in the multi-racial category has risen from 273 in 2009 to 588 in 2012.
The group University and Community Action for Racial Equality sponsored the meeting out of concern for the dropping numbers of African-American students. UCARE describes itself as a grassroots community organization with a mission to understand and remedy the University’s legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination within and outside the University.
UCARE looked at data from the U.Va. Institutional Assessment and Studies office and found that in 1991, 12 percent of the student body self-identified as African-American, compared to 6.5 percent last year.
Gregory, who has directed the Admission Office’s outreach efforts to attract minority students to U.Va. for 12 years, said the 2008 recession and weak economy has disproportionately hurt African-American families. Some students who’ve been accepted to the University go elsewhere for better financial aid, she said. Parents and students are more worried than they used to be about paying for college, and are less willing to take out loans to help.
In addition, there is still a perception among some African-Americans that they shouldn’t even apply because they can’t afford rising tuition costs, Gregory said. Although the AccessUVa financial aid program implemented in 2003 has made a dramatic difference in attracting students, U.Va. is competing more than ever with elite schools, such as Harvard and Princeton universities, for the top black students.
Like Gregory, McDowell said she has a sense that more students are anxious about covering college costs. “The economy is playing a major role,” she said.
Audience member Claudrena Harold, a history professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the change in numbers is not just about the economy. “It has to be a priority of the administration, the Board of Visitors and the state,” she said.
Also in the audience, Maurice Apprey, director of U.Va.’s Office of African-American Affairs, said although some students might be having more trouble with finances, there is not a retention problem here. Academically, black students are performing better than ever, and the University has maintained its successful graduation rate, he said.
Gregory said the pool of well-qualified black high-schoolers is shrinking both on the national level and in Virginia, because of the achievement gap between white students and minority students in kindergarten through 12th grade. She quoted Virginia Department of Education statistics that, of the high-school graduates last year, only 25 percent were African-American students, and of that group, 16 percent pursue more education.
The Office of Admission has programs to reach parents and potential students in earlier grades than in the past to advise them on the path to college, Gregory said, adding that her office needs to do more. “We have a public obligation to make sure African-American students know the process,” she said. She and McDowell agreed the University should try to reach younger students and families to get them thinking ahead about college.
Over the past two decades, some of the University’s options have changed, Gregory said. As a result of judicial challenges to affirmative action, the University cannot offer race-based scholarships; they must be supported by private funding and offered through University foundations. Black alumni have helped by endowing scholarships, such as the Holland and Ridley programs, and she called for more fundraising to increase the number of scholarships.
If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the use of race in the University of Texas’ undergraduate admissions process in Fisher vs. University of Texas, Gregory predicted the number of students applying and being accepted will decrease. Under the current legal interpretation, at issue in the case, U.Va. does use race as one of many factors in deciding who to accept into U.Va.
“It’s a holistic process” in determining the makeup of each class of students, she pointed out.
Audience members asked about other possible factors in how black students make their college choices. What about the number of African-American faculty? Could the University save money, and thus charge less for tuition, by reducing the size of the administration? Could faculty exert more pressure on the University to work on the numbers? What do we mean by diversity?
Gregory encouraged students to help her office by getting involved.
“We need your help,” she said. “Students are our greatest asset. You could go back to your high school or church and talk about U.Va.”