Paucity of black male students is UT's biggest diversity challenge
Scaling back top 10 percent law could help boost numbers, Powers says.
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Saturday, April 11, 2009
In some ways, Brian Gaston is like many other students at the University of Texas. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class. He's a big sports fan. He plans to attend law school.
In another way, Gaston is unusual: He is black. Just 2,192, or 4.4 percent, of the nearly 50,000 students enrolled at UT in the fall of 2008 were African American. And only 830 of those African American students were men. Black enrollment figures do not include foreign students.
The paucity of black men is the biggest diversity challenge on campus, UT President William Powers Jr. said at a recent legislative hearing. Low enrollment and graduation rates for black men, stemming from many years of social, historical and economic forces, are nationwide problems in higher education.
UT officials say they are trying to address the problem on multiple fronts, such as encouraging more mentoring of black men on campus and offering scholarships to students — many of whom are black or Hispanic — from Texas high schools that historically have sent few graduates to UT.
But another aspect of the university's strategy — urging lawmakers to scale back a state law that entitles the top 10 percent students to attend any of the state's 35 public universities — has proved controversial. The law was enacted in 1997 in an effort to boost minority enrollment, and some lawmakers worry that weakening it could cause black and Hispanic enrollment to erode.
Powers, who does not want to increase the size of the student body, argues that too much of UT's enrollment consists of students admitted under the 10 percent rule — 81 percent of entering freshmen from Texas last year. Limiting admittance of Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent to about half would allow the university to enroll more students based on factors besides class rank, such as race, extracurricular activities, leadership skills and test scores, he says.
"What I absolutely, firmly believe and will commit to ... (is) we will make more progress" in minority enrollment if the law is scaled back, Powers said at a hearing of the state's House Higher Education Committee last month. "It'll be most dramatic for African Americans, because the numbers are smaller."
The Senate has passed a measure that would give Powers most of what he wants. The proposal's prospects in the House, which rejected a similar plan two years ago, are uncertain. Some House members have expressed skepticism at the university's argument that the law needs to be modified for the sake of minority enrollment.
"They don't have a problem finding a black male fullback or quarterback or shooting guard," Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, said in a frequently heard refrain.
Of the current freshman class, whose members enrolled in the summer and fall of 2008, there are 375 black students, or 6 percent of the class. . And of those black students, 34, or 9 percent, are athletes on scholarship, UT officials said.
For some black male students, UT can be an intimidating and isolating place, not only because of the small numbers of black students, but also because of prominent historical reminders that blacks once weren't welcomed.
Statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders line the South Mall of the campus, and an inscription dedicates the Littlefield Fountain to the Confederacy. State law barred black students until 1950, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the admission of Heman Sweatt, who had been rejected by UT's School of Law because of his race.
But Gaston, a senior majoring in management who competes on the debate team and plans to attend law school, said adjusting to life at UT "wasn't a big jump."
Although his high school on the outskirts of Houston was predominantly black, his parents exposed him to all kinds of people through Little League baseball, church programs and other activities, he said.
"Coming to a school like UT will prepare you for any of those obstacles you might face in the real world," Gaston said.
One of those is being the only black person in the room. "Often, if I'm not the only black person in my class, I'm definitely the only black male in my class," said Fisayo Ogundele, a senior from Missouri City, southwest of Houston, who is majoring in biology and pre-pharmacy.
UT isn't alone in its low enrollment of black males. Nationwide, women outnumber men in higher education, with black women outnumbering their male counterparts by nearly 2-to-1, the highest margin for any racial or ethnic group.
Fewer than a third of black male college students nationwide graduate within six years of enrolling, the lowest rate among both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups, according to a report by Shaun Harper, an assistant professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote the report for the nonprofit Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Black men who enrolled as UT freshmen in 2002 posted a graduation rate of 54 percent, but that still falls short of the 75 percent rate for the university's black women and the 76 percent rate for white men.
Young black men in America face other problems besides getting an education, such as incarceration rates and unemployment rates that sharply exceed those of their white and Hispanic counterparts, said Richard Reddick, an assistant professor of higher education administration at UT.
College can be challenging for all students, Reddick said, "but when you're part of a group that's stigmatized as not being high-achieving, that carries a toll."
Ogundele and his roommate, Ewaen Woghiren, both of whom moved to the United States at a young age with their families from Nigeria, cited another cultural factor: There can be a stigma to lifting books rather than weights.
Scholars have coined a term for the aloofness and independence that characterize some young black men and make it difficult for them to succeed in college: "cool pose." The trait is a reaction to the fact that the African American male historically has been demonized and objectified as savage and ignorant, Reddick said.
Still, black students respect intelligence, Reddick said. When he taught at an inner-city school in Houston before earning his doctorate at Harvard University, Reddick said, the insult most likely to provoke a fight was for one student to tell another, "You're stupid."
UT officials say they hope to attract more black male students and improve their graduation rates.
Each year, 130 to 140 scholarships are awarded to freshmen from historically under-represented high schools. Recipients of the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship get a $5,000 grant each year for four years.
The scholarship helps a lot, said Cardan Samples, a black freshman from Fort Worth who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. "If I hadn't gotten it I would have tried to figure out a way to go," he said.
UT also is stepping up mentoring efforts, said Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement. It's never too early to begin planting the college-going seed, he said, noting that pre-kindergarten students at UT's charter elementary school in East Austin are referred to as "little Longhorns."
The university is trying to increase the number of African Americans in its faculty ranks as well, having hired 10 in 2007 and 10 more in 2008. UT has 91 tenured and tenure-track black professors out of 1,995 overall.
"Another measure is that the president and the provost have agreed to make the Center for African and African American Studies a tenure-granting unit," one mark of a full academic department, Vincent said.
Black students at UT say all of these efforts are important. But they also say that families must do more to encourage black males to study hard in primary and secondary school and apply to college.
The election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president should help inspire families, said Woghiren, a senior from Houston majoring in government.
Ultimately, Woghiren said, there's no secret about what it takes to succeed in school.
"It's self-determination instilled by core people in your life," he said.