Private colleges work to enroll more minority students

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By ELAINE MALLON
Capital News Service

LANSING — When Chicago native Alex Butler applied to colleges in his senior year of high school three years ago, he said he didn’t have a lofty list of expectations. 

A school’s athletic department, much less the diversity of its student body, was not a deciding factor for Butler, a junior majoring in ethnic studies and English. As a first-generation African American college student, only one factor would decide where he received his degree: the cost. 

At Albion College, federal aid and scholarships provided by the college covered over 80% of his tuition and room and board. While Butler said he had hoped to attend a historically Black university or college, he couldn’t turn down the scholarships offered at Albion.

“The first time I got here, I was moving into the dorms,” Butler said. “My list ended up going out of the window. They gave me the best amount of money, so I ended up going there.” 

Butler’s enrollment is just one example of success in Albion’s efforts to increase minority enrollment.

For the 2013-2014 school year, only 18% of students identified as a person of color. During, 2019-2020, 41% of students identified as a minority. The incoming fall 2020 class consisted of 48% students of color. 

Kelly Finn, the chief of staff to Albion’s president, said the private college has been working to create a more inclusive environment for minority students both with financial aid and college programs. 

“One of our core values is belonging,” Finn said. “We are committed to building a campus where every student feels at home. To do that, we need to go beyond diversity, equity and inclusion to true belonging.”

Albion isn’t the only private college in Michigan taking steps to diversify its student body. 

According to Robert LeFevre, the president of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities, Kalamazoo College is also diligently working to increase its minority student population. 

LeFevre said the college might have the possibility of becoming Michigan’s first private college with a majority of minority students. 

Sarah Westfall, Kalamazoo’s vice president of student development and dean of students, said improving minority enrollment has been an objective for the college for the past 14 years. 

With the shift in racial demographics, Kalamazoo recognized many minorities were becoming of college age and focused heavily on recruiting them. The school focused its recruitment efforts in densely minority-populated areas such as Southern California and Texas.

In 2011, 19.8% percent of enrolled students identified with a racial minority. In 2020, the number was 35.7%. 

“We really wanted to get a student body that looked more like the world that we live in instead of a world that has passed,” Westfall said. 

While Kalamazoo College has significantly improved its minority student enrollment, the school has struggled with retaining them over the years. 

In 2012, its minority enrollment shot up to 28.74%, but in 2013 fell to 23.4%. A similar 

trend happened in 2014 with minority enrollment at 32.8% but falling to 27.2% the following year.

The ACT and SAT tests are optional for applicants to Kalamazoo College, and Albion College offers free tuition for students below a certain family income threshold. 

But according to Butler, colleges also need to create an environment where minority students feel comfortable. 

As treasurer for the Black Student Alliance, Butler said he’s found his place on campus. 

“I did expect there to be like a larger Black community when I first got here, but I was wrong,” Butler said. “It’s grown over time.”

Recruiting is only half the battle, and Finn and Westfall said their colleges constantly work to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment.

For example, last summer, Albion launched “Blueprint for Belonging,” which serves as an audit for evaluating the best steps for improving students’ sense of inclusion. 

In addition, last fall the college received a grant of more than $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education/TRIO Student Support Services to assist students from low-income families, first generation students and those with disabilities. 

As for Kalamazoo College, it hosts peer ed groups at its Intercultural Student Center, which was established five years ago. 

Those groups include Sister Circle, established to give women of color an opportunity to talk about their shared experiences, and Sakuma, an organization for underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Of the 41 private colleges in Michigan, Kalamazoo and Albion have been noted as leaders in their efforts to improve the diversity of their campus, according to Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities.

 But according to Alma College director of communications Tim Rath, his school’s efforts to improve minority enrollment are equally notable. 

In the past 10 years, Alma has increased minority enrollment by 13%. 

The college has focused much of its efforts in reaching out to potential students in Detroit.

 As a participant in the Detroit Future Program, Alma offers full tuition and room board scholarships to students who live or attend high school in Detroit. The students must come from a family with an annual household income below $65,000. 

“We are committed to recognizing and removing barriers to success and providing equitable access to opportunities through education and advocacy,” Rath said. 

According to Kalamazoo’s Westfall, improving minority presence is just one piece of the strategy for diversifying a campus. 

“We don’t have a goal, for example, of being X% certain kinds of folks and Y% certain kinds of others,” Westfall said. 

“We don’t define diversity only as a race or ethnicity. There is socio-economic diversity, religious diversity and cultural diversity, and we care equally about all of those,” she said.