Minority numbers low

Joe Lord

On white paper, Western’s minority enrollment efforts rest in the good graces of state overseers. Across the Hill, however, the number of black students in graduate classes sits in the red.

Ask Erica Johnson of Maysville, a graduate student who came to Western in the fall expecting more diverse classes than her private school undergraduate years had to offer.

“I think my expectations were a little higher,” she said.

Johnson was the only black student in her first graduate class. There were two others in her second.

Eighty black students from Kentucky were enrolled in graduate classes at Western in the fall of 2001, according to draft numbers reported to the Council on Post-Secondary Education. Western has about 2,500 students in its graduate programs.

There are no exact numbers for all of Western’s black graduate students, and the CPE does not keep statistics for other minority groups.

The university reported 80 black students from Kentucky in the fall of 2001. The numbers are about the same this year, said Elmer Gray, dean of Graduate Studies.

“It’s an area that concerns us,” Gray said. “We need to be doing better than we are.”

The problem is greater than number crunching.

Kentucky’s eight state universities play a major role in providing a diverse work force for schools and private industry, said Sherron Jackson, interim vice president for finance at the CPE.

“You can’t provide business and industry a diverse population of which to choose from if you are not recruiting them into graduate school,” Jackson said.

Howard Bailey, dean of Student Life, said graduate degrees can increase the income of their holders.

“If you’re going to move any significant portion of a race into the middle class, however you define middle class, they’re going to have to have advanced degrees,” Bailey said.

Graduate school can also propel blacks from student to teacher, Jackson said. These teachers may eventually fill the diversity gaps at universities.

But on the recruiting end, some say Western is at a disadvantage — sometimes losing to bigger, wealthier schools.

“I think what happened was that along the way, the competition became much greater,” Gray said.

In recent years, Kentucky schools have been vying for the same black graduate students.

Kentucky’s research universities can offer better incentives, such as more assistantships, to black students, Gray said. Those schools also offer doctorate programs while Western does not.

Gray said students who are seeking doctorates usually prefer to do so at the same college where they get their master’s.

In the end, most of Western’s black graduate students are public school teachers trying to update their teacher certification, Gray said. He said he’d like more blacks enrolled in all graduate programs.

But Johnson said more needs to be done for black graduate students already on the Hill.

Western’s minority support groups are geared more to undergraduates, Johnson said. She’s working with Gray to develop ways to help black graduate students adjust to campus, but there aren’t any definite plans at this time.

The lack of black graduate students from Kentucky is more than a problem of diversity, Jackson said.

All state universities in Kentucky must meet six of eight goals outlined in the Kentucky Plan for Equal Opportunity. If schools do not comply with the Kentucky Plan, they become ineligible for new academic programs, Jackson said.

Western meets six of the Kentucky Plan’s goals, but it does not meet the requirement for recruiting in-state black students into graduate programs.

Affirmative action is not used for admissions into graduate programs at Western, Gray said. Instead, networking efforts are launched to lure black students.

Recruiters pitch Western’s graduate programs at college career days throughout Kentucky, Gray said. His office gets mailing lists of black students about to graduate, and it stays in touch with Tennessee State and Kentucky State, both historically black universities.

“Any contact that we get on the part of a minority student, we certainly follow that through,” Gray said.

And there is the Minority Assistantship Program.

Gray said MAP is available to black graduate students who are residents of Kentucky. Students with assistantships work for the university and get reduced tuition.

Western had as many as 25 MAP students per semester in the early 1990s, Gray said. This year, that number has dwindled down to one.

Gray said current events are playing a role in the decline. The law school admissions policy at the University of Michigan, which uses race as a factor in choosing students, will be placed before the United States Supreme Court this spring.

“If Michigan’s policy is ruled unconstitutional, it will have really broad ramifications for public education in the U.S.,” said Emily M. S. Houh, an assistant law professor at Northern Kentucky University.

That includes the possible demise of MAP, Gray said.

The Supreme Court’s decision will likely be close, said Houh, a 1996 law school graduate of the University of Michigan.

The intensive recruiting efforts and programs never found Johnson.

She said she made the first contact with Western, then visited the Hill twice before enrolling. She assumed there would be more black students in her classes because Western is a state university.

She admits her assumptions were wrong.

Johnson said she was also the only black student in her high school classes. Her next stop will be a doctoral program — a BEGITALdiverseENDITAL doctoral program, though she’s not exactly sure where that is.

“Third time’s a charm,” Johnson said.

Reach Joseph Lord at [email protected]