The Changing Face of American Colleges
Diversity is not merely an ethical imperative; it’s also a demographic fact of life...
The complexion of America is changing—and quickly. So why must colleges and universities work so hard to create a racially diverse campus?
Other factors, such as who goes to college and who doesn’t, mean the demographics of college applicants differ from those of the larger pool of high-school graduates. And since colleges and universities also play a major role in creating diversity on their own campuses, such factors as outreach and financial aid have a major impact.
According to recent demographic projection, 40 percent of high-school graduates in the United States will be nonwhite by the year 2010, up from just over a third in 2000 and less than 25 percent in 1980.
“Liberal arts colleges have to recognize that our demographics must change, and if they don’t change, we will be shrinking,” says Professor of Economics Cecilia Conrad. “It is just that the population we are drawing from is changing. We want to educate the best and the brightest from all groups.”
The 2000 national census found that the U.S. population has become increasingly diverse, due in large part to a 58 percent growth in the country’s Hispanic population. At the same time, the white population is shrinking; in 2000, whites made up 69 percent of the 281.4 million people in the country, down from 76 percent in 1990. Other racial and ethnic groups grew slightly nationwide. On the state level, greater increases were seen in California, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the nation. Because most of the growth throughout the nation was attributed to birth rates, the most dramatic increase in diversity is taking place among children.
This demographic change in the school-age population is dramatic in California, the state where Pomona College draws a large section of its students. Experts are predicting the number of public high-school graduates in California will increase in all racial and ethnic groups except for white students. In 2002, the California Department of Finance released figures estimating that between June 2001 and June 2012, the number of Hispanic high-school graduates will grow by 68 percent; and both Asian and African-American students will increase by 22 percent. At the same time, the number of white students is expected to drop by eight percent.
This demographic shift is part of a nationwide trend that has been going on for some time, and it’s one reason that minority enrollment in the nation’s colleges and universities has jumped by 122 percent over the past 20 years. Despite this increase, the gap among college participation rates for white, African-American and Hispanic high-school graduates widened from 30 percent for all races in 1978-1980 to the 1998-2000 rates of 45 percent for whites, compared with 40 percent for African Americans and 34 percent for Hispanics, according to a study released this year by the American Council on Education. Of the total college-campus population nationwide in 2000, 70 percent were white, 11 percent were African American and eight percent were Hispanic.
This disparity becomes noteworthy when you consider that surveys of high-school students routinely find that African American and Latino students are more likely to say they plan to go to college than are white students. According to Conrad, this is likely due, in part, to the fact that a college degree can lead to a better quality of life, including a greater earnings potential. A 2000 study conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit public-opinion-research organization, found that 65 percent of Hispanic parents and 47 percent of African-American parents believe that a college education is the single most important factor in a person’s success, compared with 33 percent of white parents.
“But in the aggregate, black and Latino students are less likely to go because they are more likely to be poor and because no one else in their families has gone to college,” says Conrad, pointing out two widely accepted indicators of college attendance.
Where college-bound people of color choose to go often depends in large part on the institution itself. Prospective students don’t send applications to colleges they don’t know much about. Getting a school’s name out there can be especially daunting for small, elite, private schools, like Pomona, which aren’t as well know as the public, state schools.
“A key aspect is outreach,” says Gilda Ochoa, Pomona College associate professor of sociology and Chicana/o studies. “A lot of people still don’t know about Pomona College.”
Even in the Los Angeles area, which Pomona College calls home, many public high-school students are not introduced to the wealth of private, liberal-arts colleges right in their own backyard. Recruiting, says Ochoa, is part of the reason why. State colleges and universities and the military are far more likely to recruit at public high schools, particularly in working class communities of color.
Melissa McCoy ’04 agrees. McCoy, a biracial student of Mexican and Anglo descent, grew up in Montclair, a city bordering on Claremont.
“Colleges have to reach out to where minority students live, which may be right in the neighborhood of the college,” says McCoy. “So many people in the local area have never heard of Pomona College, and they don’t even know that it’s an option for them.”
Another crucial factor in outreach is letting people know about the financial aid offered at the school. The numbers can appear daunting at first glance; Pomona charges $25,730 per year in tuition, compared to $10,874 at a University of California school. But considering Pomona’s financial aid offerings shatters the misconception that the pricetag for private college education is astronomically high.
“If it were not for an exceptional financial aid package, I would have never been able to attend Pomona College,” McCoy says. “However, many students don’t know about financial aid, and many schools can’t or don’t offer packages like Pomona does.”
According to a study released this year by Pomona College Politics Professor John Seery, financial aid actually makes Pomona and many other private, liberal-arts colleges affordable. For example, with financial aid figured into the mix, an in-state student at Pomona College will spend only $3,000 more on tuition and room and board over four years than the same student would have spent at UCLA. At the same time, the Pomona student will gain an education that is valued at $87,200 more.
“School counselors, parents, and college officials should be emphasizing that this ‘Rolls Royce’ form of undergraduate education can be extremely affordable and prospective students must look past the initial sticker price,” says Seery.
Besides tuition, the SAT scores of Pomona’s admitted students can appear daunting. The College’s class of 2004 has median SAT scores of 1430 (720 math and 710 verbal) out of a possible 1600. Compare this to the national average of 1026 (519 math and 507 verbal), and the ongoing controversy over the fact that African American and Hispanic students have long had lower SAT scores than white and Asian students, and there might be a lot of prospective students, particularly students of color, who give up on attending Pomona before they even apply.
The campus climate is another big factor that can impact diversity at a college.
“I didn’t want to go to a school were I would be one of few students of color,” says Kaneisha Grayson ’06, an African American student who first visited Pomona as part of the Minority Student Action Program (MSAP).
“The MSAP staff genuinely reach out to students of color and work very hard to make their visit here fun, comfortable and exciting,” Grayson says of the program, although she believes prospective students of color should also visit the school at a time when no special programs are planned, in order to get a balanced view--something Grayson did not do.
“After arriving here at Pomona, I was struck by how isolated I felt,” she says. “I was one of very few students of color in most of my classes. It was a huge adjustment to come here where most students are wealthy and white, and I am neither of those.”
Chrisshonna Grant ’05, on the other hand, was aware of the demographics at Pomona, and so was surprised by the difficulties she had when she arrived as a student.
“When I first came to Pomona to visit the campus I noticed that it was overwhelmingly composed of white students. However, it did not bother me much,” says Grant, an African American woman. “I went to a predominantly white middle school so I knew that I would be able to adapt to the environment. However, my high school was extremely diverse, so when I got to Pomona, I was in ‘culture’ shock.”
Grant owes part of her discomfort to the fact that she couldn’t go home every night as she had done while a middle school student. On top of that though, some early encounters with other students left her feeling confused and angry.
“It was not until I came to Pomona that I started to critically think about race and power dynamics,” Grant says. “I never before had to educate white students about my struggles. I discovered new challenges I had against me and was finally able to accurately articulate struggles I experienced in life but was unaware, at the time, how to name them. I also realized how many stereotypes I held about my own ethnic background. It was hard to listen to ignorant comments and it was discouraging to know that we students of color did not change the minds of many of our white classmates.”
Both Grant and Grayson say the transition would have been easier if the school had more students of color.
Despite the obstacles to creating a racially and ethnically diverse college campus, few of Pomona’s students of color say that it’s not worth the struggle.
—Deborah Haar Clark