First-year Black Student Enrollment Drop Raises Diversity Concerns at University of Maryland - Higher Education
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First-year Black Student Enrollment Drop Raises Diversity Concerns at University of Maryland

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by Arelis Hernandez

In 1994, Kerri Baldwin, a New Jersey high school senior then, had to make a choice about college. The economy was vibrant, the academic options were available, and scholarships were tailored to her needs. She chose the University of Maryland in College Park, an out-of-state school, because it offered what few others could: diversity.

 

“Although it was a large White institution when I attended 11 years ago, it almost felt like it was an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) because we were so closely connected and lots of outlets for things to do on campus,” said Baldwin, who is African-American.  “Maryland was always up there, ranked one of the highest institutions for diversity and that was such a huge factor why my sorority sisters and I enrolled there.”

 

Baldwin, a self-proclaimed die-hard “Terrapin,” will be married at the university’s chapel next month, making her wedding both a college reunion as well as a tribute to the years spent at the state’s flagship campus. The terrapin, a turtle common to the Atlantic coast, is the University of Maryland-College Park (UMCP) mascot.

 

But this month, the university’s institutional research office released startling numbers for alumni, students, and even school officials. Among first-year students, African-American students experienced a 28-percent drop in the number of enrollees. The drop is from 539 in 2008 to 387 in 2009, according to UMCP data.

 

“We expected some decline, but we were surprised by the significance,” said Shannon Gundy, admissions director at UMCP. “It was undesired and unintentional.”

 

While the poor economy has enticed students of all backgrounds across the United States into colleges and universities, the University of Maryland, for various reasons, has seen enrollment drops among minority students, according to statistics from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the University of Maryland.

 

SREB spokesman Alan Richard said the board monitors institutional data in 16 states from Delaware to Texas and has found that overall Black and Hispanic students represented a sizable portion of college enrollment growth.

 

Regionally, “the growth was 57 percent or 625,600 Black and Hispanic students more than half of overall enrollment growth,” Richard said, adding that the statistics are compiled from federal data spanning 10 years from 1997 to 2007. “That was also true in the state of Maryland: a-45 percent increase or 30,500 students. The overall enrollment was 43,200.”

 

Even with the upward trend regionally and statewide for minority students, UMCP numbers have trekked in the opposite direction in the last three years. Since 2007, the number of African-American first-year students has decreased 32 percent, while Hispanics as a percentage of the population have dropped about 9 percent.

 

Gundy said the school’s new strategic plan, a road map for the next 10 years, calls for a decrease in the undergraduate population overall and enhancing the academic profile of its students.

 

The 2009 incoming class at UMCP was among the highest achieving, with a high school cumulative GPA of 3.93, and SAT scores averaged between 1220 and 1370 for combined math and verbal sections. In terms of population growth, enrollment increased especially among White, Asian, and foreign students from the previous year.

 

Several factors account for the negative numbers, Gundy said, including fewer numbers of admitted students, confusion during the application process, and the economy.

 

“From anecdotal conversations with students, we know the economy played a role. Certain conditions were exacerbated in the African-American population,” Gundy said, adding that the financial aid office worked weekend hours to deal with the volume of requests. “The process was also one of the problems; African-Americans were completing the application process at lower rates than other students.”

 

More aggressive outreach was put into place immediately, Gundy said, to bring about a turnaround, including personalization, phone calls to encourage completion, and bringing students on campus early in the process to meet other students.

 

“We have to broaden the pool of students,” she said, adding that fewer transfer students were also admitted. “But there are a finite number of students that exist that are academically competitive.”

 

Admittedly, Gundy said UMCP did not do as well finding those academically prepared students of color, but they plan on hiring a community outreach coordinator that can bring in the entire campus community to assist in recruitment efforts.

 

Dr. Ronald Zeigler, director of the Nyumburu Cultural Center, a cultural hub for Black students at UMCP, said he believes diversity and academic competitiveness are not mutually exclusive. He was alarmed early on when he received a list of the students eligible for The Black Male Initiative, a mentoring program aimed at increasing leadership, achievement and retention of Black males at the university.

 

“If we are admitting 600 African-American freshmen in each class and suddenly go down to 400, what has the university done to maintain its image?” Zeigler said, questioning whether the university did enough to prepare for the reduction or offer explanations.  “I don’t know the reason for those numbers.”

 

Meanwhile, students of color are looking for more affordable options at other state universities and colleges. At both Salisbury and Frostburg State, first-year enrollment has blossomed particularly among African-American students.

 

Liz Medcalf, director of News and Media at Frostburg State University, said the school realized personal recruiting was the best tool to reach out to minority students in their high schools and community colleges. In the last five years, the number of African-Americans grew from 15 percent to 24 percent of the population, mostly through word of mouth.

 

“Our diversity is significantly up, and we continue to grow. We are very pleased with our student body because it represents all kinds of groups,” said Wray Blair, vice president for recruitment at Frostburg. “A lot of folks have been looking at staying in-state and come from the Baltimore-Washington metro area, but they still want to go away to college and have a campus experience; at Frostburg, they can do that.”

 

Salisbury University President Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach, who happens to be bilingual, has been a strong proponent for diversity initiatives, said Ellen Neufeldt, Salisbury’s vice president of student affairs.

 

“We are obviously a smaller school, but we have seen great interest from minority students overall,” Neufeldt said. “The demographics are changing, and we are becoming more diverse in general, so we want very much to create an infrastructure that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds because that is what truly adds to the educational experience.”

 

During that time, the academic readiness of their students has also increased.

 

“Our GPA was up 6 points this year, 3.59 for the freshman class. We are seeing an increase in academic abilities of students coming in,” she said.

 

When asked whether enhancing their academic profile limits diversity: “That has not been the case here; academic profile has grown as well as racial diversity. I can’t speak beyond Salisbury University but that is just not our story.”

 

Demographically, Maryland is expected to shift to minority-majority status like much of the nation. In 2022, estimates say nearly 53 percent of all public high school graduates will be Hispanic or Black, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

 

With such dramatic changes projected for the future, Baldwin said this year’s homecoming festivities will be marked by conversations among alumni of color. Baldwin, who is a member of the Black Alumni Association, said roundtables are in order as well as a meeting with Chancellor William E. Kirwan of the University of Maryland system.  

 

“We want to figure out what is going on and how we get Maryland to be better than it was 15 years ago,” she said.

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