Minority enrollment deserves attention

.Since 1996, minority enrollment at the University, including both undergraduate and graduate students, has remained at a low 13 percent. During the past six years, black and Hispanic enrollment has remained particularly low, as 3 percent of University enrollment is black and 2 percent is Hispanic. Further, since 1996, enrollment of freshmen of color at the University has remained steady at 17 percent.

However, getting minority students to come to the University is only half of the diversity battle. Minority freshmen on this campus are more likely to drop out of school than their white counterparts. Minority students are also less likely to graduate within five years of enrolling at the University; over the last five years the five-year graduation rate for minority students at the University has consistently been 10 percent to 15 percent less than the same rate for white students. The quality of education minority students have received at this University can also be criticized. To wit, a significant plurality of undergraduate minority students at the University is enrolled in the General College, a preparatory, non-degree program.

Given that the minority population in Minnesota as of 2000 was only 12 percent, some might argue that a minority enrollment of 13 percent at the University is appropriate. However, this ignores the fact the University is part of a major urban area where approximately 20 percent of the residents are considered people of color. The University, a major educational, cultural and economic institution in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, should, at a minimum, reflect the makeup of its environs.

Increased minority participation at the University is important for several reasons. As recent census data has revealed, wealth disparity is increasing in the Twin Cities area. A disproportionate number of people of color reside on the low end of the Twin Cities wealth distribution. As a land grant university with a mission to serve the state’s people the University needs to take the lead in giving the state’s poorer minority residents access to educational knowledge and tools that can be used to generate wealth. As citizens of urban areas all over the country have discovered, many urban ills are mitigated when wealth disparity decreases. Data from Census 2000 also revealed that Minnesota, and especially the Twin Cities area, is quickly becoming more diverse. In the future, people of color will become a larger part of this state’s economy, government and culture. The University has a duty to be in the vanguard of preparing the state and its people for its increasing multicultural future.

To be sure, depressed minority enrollment is not entirely due to a lack of effort on the University’s part. The University administration has refused to disavow affirmative action in a period where many other institutions throughout the country have. The University also participates in three TRIO programs, a federal government plan that assists students from poor households in preparing for and adjusting to college life. The Office for Multicultural and Academic Affairs is active on campus. Finally, the University makes a strong effort to recruit local inner-city high schools. However, for all of this work, minority enrollment has remained static and low in a quickly diversifying state; improvements in minority recruitment and retention programs at the University need to be made.

Improvement will come if the University becomes even more aggressive in its courting of minority students. The University needs to devote more resources to getting and retaining students of color to campus than it currently does. Further, the University has to strengthen its current affirmative action program and give minority status even more weight in the admission process. Critics of affirmative action, of course, will consider this last suggestion an anathema. Affirmative action critics would argue we live in a meritocracy where the playing field is level for all and all that is required to succeed is hard work. Under this world view institutional racism has been obviated and affirmative action is not only unnecessary but also inefficient and misguided. Yet wealth and opportunity disparity is increasing in this county, and more often than not minorities are in the boats that are not rising. Therefore, unless the critics of affirmative action are actually willing to question the effort and capabilities of this country’s minorities, how can the existence of institutional racism throughout this country be denied? Affirmative action is still a viable and important program for this University to use in its attempts to provide educational opportunities to the minority populations of this and neighboring states.