Midwestern Competitive Private Colleges Become White Minority


The University of California led the way among highly competitive colleges by catering to a white minority student body. Last fall, campuses across the system enrolled 51,727 freshmen. The largest ethnic group among students was Asian American, at 18,127 (35%). They were followed by Latino students, at 13,573 (26%). White students made up only 10,152 of the total (20%). On some campuses, white students make up an even smaller share. At the UC Riverside campus, for example, last year there were just 517 white freshmen out of a class of 5,203. And that was without affirmative action, which California has banned.

Harvard University followed a few years ago and this fall expects Asian Americans to make up the largest share of its freshman class, at 27.6%. With other students of color, the total minority enrollment is 57.5%. At Cornell University, 57.7% of admitted students identified as students of color. Amherst College followed the trend last year. These colleges are all private institutions and they use affirmative action.

Now the trend is coming to private colleges and universities in the Midwest.

At Washington University in St. Louis, white students will make up just 38% of freshmen this fall. These figures come after a major campaign to increase the number of students eligible for the Pell Grant to 20% of all freshmen, an increase of 15 percentage points in 10 years. At the University of Chicago, only 33.5% of students were white (at the undergraduate level).

At public universities in the Midwest, the imperative to admit students from in-state residents limits what admissions officers can do.

But this is not the case in liberal arts colleges. The trend extends even to those in rural (mostly white) parts of the country. They believe that enrolling more minority students will help their institutions (as minority populations grow) and is simply the right thing to do.

Both Grinnell College in Iowa and Carleton College in Minnesota are majority minority colleges this fall (counting international students). (Whether the “majority minority” phase should still be used is much debated, but its significance is understood.) At Grinnell, the number of nonwhite freshmen rose from 49.9 % last year to 50.8% of students this year. Much of the gain was among Latino students, who rose from 7.9% to 10.5% of new students. Grinnell has also been helped by international students, which historically at Grinnell (and this year as well) make up over 19%.

“It’s our mission at work,” is how Joseph Bagnoli Jr., vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid, describes the fact that more than half of students are anything other than white Americans. Grinnell’s location means the college must do more to recruit minority students, he said. Being blind to need during admissions helps a lot, he said. Added to this is a ‘no loan’ policy for those receiving assistance to attend Grinnell.

Bagnoli said while not all minority students have financial need, most do, especially given the cost of attending a private college. But he’s found that it’s the reality of those policies (students are admitted and don’t have to borrow money) that attracts students, more than being told Grinnell needs blind or no-loan loans. .

For international students, Bagnoli said a key part of the college’s approach is to admit no more than a third of international students from any one country. So, in addition to having students from the countries that send the most students to the United States (China, South Korea, and India), Grinnell has students in the incoming class from Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, from Egypt, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, South Africa. and many more.

To make its location more appealing, the college is holding a “flight day” for all first-generation and Pell-eligible students and a parent or teacher of the student. Grinnell does well among visiting students, but getting students to visit is the main challenge, he said.

One of the main reasons to push for the non-white majority (aside from the fact that schools across the country are already there) is that it helps recruit more minority students or international students.

Jivyya Vaidya, president of the International Student Organization at Grinnell, is from India. When she encourages her fellow Indians to consider Grinnell, she says, “Half of them think it’s Cornell,” and the other half says, “What is Iowa?”

Saying that the international and minority student population is large at Grinnell makes a real difference to prospective students, especially if they study in Iowa and find it’s predominantly white, Vaidya said.

Loyal Terry, president of the Grinnell’s Student Government Association and co-chair of the Black Student Union, said he was a low-income student from Los Angeles, so he was trying his luck with Grinnell when he went – and he’s glad to have done it.

“It shows we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he said of the college’s new status. “It’s exciting that Grinnell can be a role model for other institutions.”

affirmative action

At Carleton, officials don’t brag about their numbers, as they would only be a majority-minority institution if they counted international students. But Art D. Rodriguez, its new vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, is happy nonetheless.

He remembers being a low-income Latino student from Southern California when he was recruited to come to Carleton as a student (class of 1996). “There were a lot of questions,” he said, many of which weren’t about Carleton’s curriculum. (For example, he wanted to know if there would be any food he would like. There was, he discovered, courtesy from the Latinos who worked at Carleton.)

As he has been successful in attracting minority students to Carleton, he wondered what he might do next year, if the Supreme Court, as expected, imposes severe limits on the use of the action positive by the colleges.

“We’re all holding our breath,” Rodriguez said.

A big question he asks is what the Supreme Court will do with targeted recruiting efforts. If the Supreme Court bans them (if they focus on particular minority groups), it will be especially difficult to maintain the momentum of recruiting minority students, he said.

Bagnoli said Grinnell was also watching. The college is fighting for Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to win the case. But at the same time, he said, Grinnell is considering which programs he could keep under a ruling that would go the other way. Like Rodriguez, he is particularly interested in recruiting, not pure admissions decisions.

“We are committed to replacing affirmative action,” he said, if the Supreme Court backs down. “We feel like we’ve just arrived and the Supreme Court will be a setback.”

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