Private colleges seek more diversity

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – Nonprofit private universities in Michigan are looking for ways to expand opportunities for students from underserved communities, bringing more diversity and equity to the campuses, according to Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities. 

As higher education diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and staff have “ramped up” in the last 10 years, the push to change enrollment strategies to become more inclusive has become a major goal, the association says. 

Colby Cesaro, the vice president of the advocacy group, said its member institutions tend to have a higher proportion of minority students, in part because of low faculty-to-student ratios and more attention to break down barriers of language or culture.

“We are targeting so many different diverse populations across the state,” Cesaro said. 

“It’s not just specific to the students – it really is more of a holistic family approach, and that’s what we’re hearing from our institutions that have had a lot of success with DEI efforts.”

According to the association, some of its members are at or near “majority-minority status.” That occurs when there are more non-white students than white students. 

Andrews University in Berrien Springs boasts that diversity status, with a 3-to-1 ratio of non-white to white students, according to Tony Yang, its vice president of strategy, marketing and enrollment. 

Yang said Andrews’ strong faith base as a Seventh-day Adventist university has created a global outreach for the institution.

An internationally diverse group of students want to be part of a “learning community” with the same religious values, even though students are not required to be Seventh-day Adventists, he said. 

Yang said the university doesn’t have an intentional goal of expanding its minority enrollment, but its recruitment from all over the world adds to its diversity. 

Andrews is tied with the University of Hawaii at Hilo as the No. 1 most ethnically diverse campus in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.

To continue its support of DEI, Andrews created the position of chief diversity officer, he said. 

“This university is kind of in the middle of nowhere here in Michigan, but somehow we’re a small representation of God’s kingdom, drawing people from all over the world with vastly different cultural, ethnic and lots of other different backgrounds. Representing God’s kingdom in that way here, that’s so fulfilling for me for the work that I do,” Yang said. 

Davenport University also has wide diversity on its Grand Rapids campus, with 30% minority students and over 40% of students who are the first in their families to attend college, according to President Richard Pappas.

One factor comes from a strategy called Casa Latina, which Provost Gilda Gely described as “integration” of languages, modifying 11 of its programs to be taught in both English and Spanish.

“Casa Latina is a different way of delivering the curriculum that we have, so we can actually provide access to a population that does not traditionally get to go to college because many of them have language barriers,” said Gely, who serves as Davenport’s chief academic officer. 

“Maybe they do have the capacity to go to college, but they don’t feel confident enough and they don’t feel they belong. Just having a student organization for Latinos might not be enough for them to actually be successful in college,” she said.

Cesaro said the largest new development in Michigan’s higher education landscape is the Hispanic population, which she said has nearly doubled in the last decade. 

Another Davenport strategy is its urban education program that draws teachers from inner cities who want to earn a graduate certificate. The goal is to create a cycle of more students from underserved communities attending a higher education institution and then teaching in such communities, Pappas said. 

The program has spread from Grand Rapids to Pontiac and Bay City schools, with Lansing to be added soon, according to Pappas.

Pappas said, “Our next strategy will be to do more with students as we move forward, so it’s not about the size of the actual (DEI) office.”

“You can see what’s happening around the country with Florida taking out their DEI and not even supporting it,” Pappas said. “We are committed by our actual actions, by our actual strategies, by our vision or DEI process.” 

While colleges’ enrollment diversity initiatives are on the rise, the president of Michigan Future Inc. said retention and graduation strategies are a focus. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization looks for ways to stabilize the state’s economy and workforce.

“We’ve been arguing for years that the priority should be a system that is designed for all kids, but particularly for minority kids, to pursue a four-year degree because that’s the most reliable paying career,” Lou Glazer said. 

“We’ve been saying for years that you cannot make progress on racial equity unless you substantially increase the minority four-year degree graduation rate, period. It is the most powerful lever.” 

Robert LeFevre, the president of Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities, said retention “is where the rubber meets the road. 

And Glazer said the next steps to substantially improve graduation rates should combine colleges’ financial and support services.

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