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Colleges Report Strong Surge in Black Applicants

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In a development that some say may herald a turnaround in the decline in black college enrollment, a number of postsecondary institutions are reporting substantial increases this spring in applications from black students.

Though no national statistics are available, an informal survey conducted by Brandeis University found that 10 of the 11 institutions responding had received more applications from black students than a year ago--with four registering gains of more than 30 percent and two of more than 50 percent.

And anecdotal evidence from a wide range of institutions--from large public universities like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which reported a 30 percent increase in black applicants, to small, private colleges like Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa., which had a 42 percent rise--suggests that the increase may be occurring nationwide.

Admissions officers attribute the surge to aggressive efforts by colleges to reach out to minority students.

Students "are more aware of their options,'' said Arlene M. Cash, associate director of admissions at Brandeis, which received 33 percent more applications from black students than it did last year. "They are also exercising their options a little better.'' She and others caution that the growth in applications may reflect the fact that relatively few students are applying to more colleges, rather than an expansion in the college-going rate.

But they will know more this week, the officials said, when students who have been accepted for admission are required to declare their matriculation plans. Those declarations, they note, will indicate whether the boost in applications will translate into a boost in enrollment for next fall.

Many officials, citing recent increases in the number of black high-school seniors taking college-admission tests, suggest that such an outcome is likely.

If they are correct and enrollments rise, the "alarming'' drop of the early 1980's may be at an end, said Reginald Wilson, director of the office of minority concerns of the American Council on Education.

Citing a recent U.S. Education Department report, which showed that the black college-going rate rose from 26.1 percent in 1985 to 28.6 percent in 1986 after five years of steady decline, Mr. Wilson said this fall's enrollment statistics will show whether that increase was "the beginning of a trend, or just a blip on the screen.''

Moreover, efforts to recruit minority students have been spreading to more and more campuses, he noted. If these programs bear fruit, he said, minority enrollments could continue to increase.

"There appears to be considerable concern, arising out of cries of alarm from the past six or seven years,'' he added. "I'm very excited by a lot of the activity going on.''

Numbers May Be 'Soft'

The apparent rise in the number of black applicants comes at a time when many colleges are reporting a large increase in applications generally.

This increase has created stiffer competition for enrollment slots at many of the more selective institutions. As a result, many colleges have reported turning away highly qualified applicants who would have been accepted in prior years.

Admissions officials note that the overall boost in applications may result in part from students applying to several second-choice colleges to be sure they are accepted by at least one.

"If the number is up, is it because some students are applying to multiple institutions?'' asked Frank Burtnett, executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors. "If that's the case, then there's a softness in the number.''

Mr. Burtnett noted that admissions officers at several institutions reported similar increases in applications last year. And many administrators, suspecting a "softness'' in the numbers, were caught by surprise last fall when an unexpectedly large number of students actually showed up on campus. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1987.)

Taken By Surprise

The surge in applications by minority students this year has also taken many admissions officers by surprise.

"It is a matter of some controversy why there was the falloff in black enrollment in the first place,'' noted Phillip R. Certain, associate vicechancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "So it would be pure speculation to say why'' more black students applied this year, he said.

Many black applicants are apparently undeterred by well-publicized racial incidents that have erupted on several campuses over the past few years. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst--the scene of two serious incidents since 1986--reported a 35 percent increase in applications from black students since last year.

The Brandeis survey found little pattern in the increase in applications by black students. The gains reported by 10 institutions ranged from less than 1 percent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to 52 percent at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

In addition, Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., reported a 51.4 percent increase; the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, 37.4 percent; Rice University in Houston, 33 percent; the Claremont colleges in Claremont, Calif., 20 percent; Reed College in Portland, Ore., 11 percent; and the University of California at Los Angeles, 10.3 percent.

Candidates' Caliber Cited

The only institution that did not report a gain--Oberlin College in Ohio--reported no change in black applications this year.

In addition to the increase in the number of black applicants, many college officials say that they are seeing an increase in their quality.

Stanford University officials, for example, called this year's pool of applicants the strongest in its history. Blacks represented a record 10.7 percent of the applicants accepted by Stanford, up from 9.4 percent a year ago.

Wisconsin officials also note that their minority applicants were well qualified. The university accepted many more black students this year than last, even though officials raised standards in order to shrink the size of its freshman class, according to Mr. Certain.

Marketing 'Paying Off'

At other colleges, officials attribute the increase in black applicants to more intensive recruitment of minority high-school students.

"The marketing is beginning to pay off,'' said Mr. Wilson of the ACE

Several institutions, for example, have stepped up efforts to invite students onto campus. Such efforts are effective in allaying black students' fears about elite colleges, according to Daniel J. Saracino, dean of admissions at Santa Clara University in California.

"They may have a preconceived idea that this is not a hospitable place,'' Mr. Saracino said. "If we bring them to campus, we help them realize that's not a fair stereotype.''

A similar effort has helped boost interest in William and Mary among minority students. As a public college in a state required by court order to raise minority enrollment, William and Mary has in the past few years developed programs to bring students from nearby cities onto the campus.

Other institutions have shown an increasing interest in participating in the "college fairs'' sponsored by the national college counselors' group in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, according to Mr. Burtnett. These fairs, free to students, offer inner-city youths the chance to learn about colleges they might not otherwise know about, he said.

As a result, he added, these youths "are exposed to more colleges than they were five years ago.''

'Great Deal of Activity'

Some institutions are implementing or considering even greater efforts to attract more minority students.

For example, Wisconsin's new chancellor, Donna E. Shalala, this year announced the creation of the "Madison plan'' aimed at doubling the number of black students entering that institution in the next five years.

Under the plan, which will go into effect next fall, the university will increase the number of minority faculty members, provide new financial-aid packages to reduce the debt of low-income students, and require all students to take a new "ethnic-studies'' course.

Other large state-supported institutions, such as the University of California system and Ohio State University, have launched similar efforts, according to Mr. Wilson of the ACE

"There is at least a great deal of activity there,'' he said.

And he predicted the activity would increase in the coming years, noting that an ACE-sponsored commission, headed by former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, is expected to release a report this month issuing a "clarion call'' to the nation to reverse the lagging participation by minorities in higher education.

To augment the commission's work, the ACE is expected to produce a handbook this summer outlining steps campus officials can take to recruit and retain minority students, according to Mr. Wilson.

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