Calif. Colleges Going All Out To Woo Minority Students

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Davis, Calif.

The question was in the back of Kenya Croom's mind all day long.

Accepted to both the University of California, Davis, and a small, historically black university on the East Coast, Ms. Croom wanted to know why she should choose a sprawling school with a shrinking number of minority students over a more intimate one full of "people who can relate to me all the time."

Ms. Croom's hosts, an ethnically mixed group of Davis upperclassmen who had gathered to talk with her and 15 other prospective black and Hispanic students earlier this month, didn't offer any easy answers. But by praising the welcoming atmosphere and academics at UC-Davis, the upperclassmen did give Ms. Croom reason to think about the 17,000-student university a little differently, she said later.

"When I got rejected from [UC-]Berkeley, I said I didn't want to go to a white school," said Ms. Croom, who was also accepted at the 3,700-student Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta. "But the people are nice here. I feel like maybe they need me. It does look like they need black people."

Stiff Competition

That kind of firsthand perspective is exactly what UC-Davis recruiters hope will sway the 16 Los Angeles-area minority students they flew in for a recent daylong visit to the rural campus 20 miles east of Sacramento.

As at most of the seven other undergraduate University of California campuses, the number of black, Hispanic, and Native American students admitted to UC-Davis dropped significantly this spring. It's the first time undergraduate admissions have been affected by Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot measure that prohibited the state's public colleges from using racial and gender preferences in admissions.

The number of black students accepted to UC-Davis fell by 36 percent, the number of Hispanics by 20 percent, and the number of American Indians by 18 percent, compared with last year. The drops came even after admissions officers expanded outreach efforts to minority students and broadened admissions criteria to give preference to low-income students and those who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Though admittedly disappointed that their efforts failed to produce more minority acceptances, UC-Davis officials don't have time to dwell on those numbers. Students must notify the school of their intention to enroll by May 1, leaving the university scrambling to reach the prospective students who remain undecided.

Because the colorblind standards imposed by Proposition 209 do not extend to outreach, UC-Davis in recent weeks has been avidly wooing the minority students who were accepted in an effort to ensure that the school's eventual "yield" is as diverse as possible.

The university sponsored several campus visitation days for students in central and northern California and paid a total of $2,300 for the airfare and food costs of the group of 16 students visiting from Los Angeles.

UC-Davis officials say the competition for minority students has never been stiffer. The university is going head to head with private colleges and universities in California and other states, as well as other University of California campuses conducting equally aggressive outreach campaigns.

"We're targeting underrepresented students with calls and mailings," said Gary Tudor, the director of undergraduate admissions and outreach services at UC-Davis. "We try to have at least one personal contact, and try to make sure that they get here prior to making a decision. We're being more aggressive than ever before."

Mixed Emotions

The Los Angeles-area high school seniors who were selected for the April 14 day trip to Davis could not otherwise have afforded to make the 380-mile journey, said Cecilia Medina, a 23-year-old UC-Davis graduate who has worked with the students during the past year as a Southern California regional coordinator for the university.

A Los Angeles native who grew up in housing projects, Ms. Medina knows how a 6,000-acre campus where the only major crime is bicycle theft can seem a world apart from the city streets where the students grew up.

"They've never been away from home before," Ms. Medina said. "But now they see it's possible. They see they can succeed in spite of obstacles."

Weaving through campus in an open-air tour bus, the students excitedly snapped pictures of a tree-lined brook and giggled at the sight of the cows that live in the university's agricultural facilities.

A few of the students said they're sure that UC-Davis is their school. Some were fairly certain it isn't. But the majority in the middle saw this trip as a decisionmaker, one that would allow them to choose between Davis and the other schools at the top of their lists.

"I feel special," said Eric Gonzalez, a senior at Burmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley, who will likely attend a local community college if he decides not to go to UC-Davis. "I feel like they want us. It's like an investor looking to invest and wanting to impress you."

Rejected at two other UC campuses, Mr. Gonzalez said he feels fortunate just to have been accepted to UC-Davis after Proposition 209 went into effect.

"You just have to work hard," Mr. Gonzalez said. "I knew the chances weren't so good. I'm sure I would feel differently if I hadn't gotten in anywhere."

But for other students, including Ms. Croom, being admitted to UC-Davis feels bittersweet. While pleased with the acceptance, they're disappointed about being turned down by the university system's more competitive campuses at Los Angeles and Berkeley. They say they can't help but feel that if they had applied last year, things would have been different.

"This year I got hurt by the end of affirmative action," Ms. Croom said.

One student on the day trip, senior Tuni Calloway, feels confident she'll go to the University of California, Los Angeles, in the fall, even though her parents want her to go to UC-Davis. A recent reception hosted by black UCLA alumni clinched the choice for her.

"They really pushed UCLA," Ms. Calloway said. "It feels like they want the best for me."

'No Clear Answer'

Even officials at UC-Berkeley, one of the top public universities in the nation, fear that the limited number of black, Hispanic, and American Indian students they accepted will go elsewhere. More than ever before, the minority students admitted there are academically "stellar" and are likely being pursued by Ivy League universities and other elite schools, said Jesus Mena, a spokesman for the 22,000-student university.

When UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl learned that the number of black students accepted at his campus dropped by 66 percent from last year, and the number of Hispanic students by 53 percent, he postponed a planned two-week fund-raising tour of Asia. Mr. Berdahl has instead spent much of his time calling prospective minority students and meeting them at receptions around the state.

"It's very important for a public university to be integrated," said Patrick Hayashi, the associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment at UC-Berkeley. "To not try our hardest would be irresponsible."

But to the dozens of students who gathered outside the Berkeley administration building for a recent protest rally, the university's post-admissions efforts don't go far enough.

Waving banners with phrases like "1898 or 1998?," members of UC-Berkeley's black student union organized the rally "to voice our outrage and to demand that students be given equal education," said senior Tanisha Grimes.

Students passed around a petition that called on the university to immediately admit 800 underrepresented students who were turned down despite having 4.0 grade point averages and SAT scores of at least 1200.

But even while UC-Berkeley officials value diversity, they cannot defy California law, Mr. Hayashi said.

"With our 30,000 applications, we could probably admit three very strong classes that would be the envy of the world," Mr. Hayashi said. "There's no clear answer."

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