State falls short in attracting minority students to college

Published Monday, December 24, 2001

State falls short in attracting minority students to college

First published BY HOLLY STEPP

Gov. Jeb Bush's claim that his Talented 20 program would draw hundreds more minority students to Florida's public universities has fallen far short of his projections, an analysis of state admission records for 2000 and 2001 shows.

In the two years since the program kicked in, a total of 43 students -- about 85 percent of them members of minority groups, mostly blacks -- have entered one of the state universities, apparently helped by the Talented 20 guarantee.

Bush's offer: Any public high school senior in the top 20 percent of the graduating class would be assured a spot in a state school, even if the student's grades were below the university system's 3.0 minimum grade-point average, equivalent to a B.

Talented 20 was part of Bush's controversial One Florida initiative, which eliminated the use of racial preferences in university admissions to achieve diversity in a state university system where the percentage of minority students has remained static at about 36 percent of the student body.

The governor boldly predicted in 1999 that the program would bring 400 or more minority students every year to state campuses.

But in the last two years, 263 high school graduates in the top 20 percent of their class had grades that fell below the minimum GPA standard. These students -- the ones most likely to need the program's guarantee -- represent less than 1 percent of the 45,000 graduates eligible for the program, according to records of the Florida Division of Colleges and Universities.


The governor's office says Talented 20 has been a success.

``It is helping to bring in more minority students -- minority students who would not otherwise qualify for admission,'' said Bush press secretary Elizabeth Hirst. ``For those [263] students, Talented 20 was a blessing.''

The Talented 20 classes of 2000 and 2001 were overwhelmingly white -- about 68 percent each year. Hispanics made up close to 14 percent, and blacks about 12 percent.

Bush's fledgling program could become a hot issue in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Minority legislative and civic leaders around the state label Talented 20 a failure in diversifying college campuses, especially at the University of Florida, where black freshman enrollment dropped from 819 in 2000 to 461 this year and Hispanic freshmen dropped from 838 to 711.

``The reality is that these programs simply are not bringing in the same number of minority students as traditional affirmative action programs,'' said Sylvia Hurtado, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, who has studied the so-called ``X-percentage plans'' implemented in Florida, Texas and California.

``In some cases, you find that the vast majority of the students don't need the guarantee and the ones who do may not be ready for university-level work,'' she said.

Hirst, Bush's spokeswoman, cautioned against viewing the Talented 20 as a sole substitute for affirmative action.

``Talented 20 is just one component of One Florida,'' she said. ``It is one more tool in the toolshed -- not the end-all answer.''

Other components include increased minority outreach and recruitment, stepped-up need-based financial aid, admissions criteria based on socioeconomic factors and school grading, increased efforts to offer Advanced Placement or college prep courses in low-performing schools, and state university partnerships with public schools.


Hirst said Talented 20 sends a ``strong message'' to students -- if you make good grades and succeed in high school, the state will give you a chance at college.

In the trenches, university officials agree that it will take a lot more than Talented 20 to attract additional minority students.

``There is no one thing alone -- not Talented 20 or recruitment efforts -- that will diversify a university campus,'' said Florida State University Provost Larry Abele. ``It takes a campuswide strategy, and it isn't cheap.''

University officials say it takes time for such recruiting strategies to work as projected. And that creates a Catch-22: Unless there is a diverse student body, diverse students usually won't enroll, studies have shown.

The full effects of the affirmative action ban probably won't be known for two more years -- until the entire student body consists of students admitted without the use of racial preferences. For now, only the freshman and sophomore classes are affected.

Higher-education experts say the current figures show the difficulty that states have in finding diversity strategies that produce significant gains.


``The X-percent plans seemed like a good idea on paper and were easy to understand,'' said Ansley Abraham, a policy analyst for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

``But the premise was always a little suspect,'' said Abraham, who runs the board's program to get more members of minority groups into doctoral programs. ``The notion that you could target urban, mostly minority schools to solve your diversity problem was questionable.''

The de facto goal of Talented 20 is to afford some students at low-performing, predominantly minority high schools the chance to enter one of the state schools -- though not necessarily their top choice.

That hasn't happened yet, state records show.

About 22,500 high school seniors earned the grades to put them in the top 20 percent of their classes in 2000, the year the program took effect.

Of those, 145 didn't meet the regular admission standards of at least a 3.0 GPA, making them the prime potential beneficiaries of Talented 20. But only 20 enrolled in a state university.

The Talented 20 Class of 2001 included nearly 22,000 seniors -- 118 of whom didn't meet the minimum GPA standard. Of those, 23 entered the state university system.

Education officials speculate that the rest went to community colleges, private colleges and universities in Florida and out of state, the military or the workforce.

Economics is a factor in the success of Talented 20. While the program guarantees admission, the student is responsible for meeting the financial burden of college.

Many states are waiting to see how programs like Talented 20 work in the larger, more diverse states. In California and Texas, the top 4 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of each graduating class are assured seats at a public university.

The results have been mixed. While minority enrollment has steadily dropped at the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin enrolled more blacks and Hispanics in the first year of the program than in the last year of its affirmative action program.

In Florida, officials at the state's most selective school say Talented 20 isn't a factor.

``We don't get that deep into Talented 20'' in the selection process, said University of Florida Provost David Colburn. He noted that UF gets more than 20,000 applications for 10,000 slots.

``The students who are interested in the University of Florida are very qualified, and we are able to select from the best of that pool,'' he said.

Program critics say the effect of the affirmative action ban is already apparent at UF because of the drop in minority freshman enrollment.


Bush, however, said in September that he was satisfied with ``the long-term, focused approach for ensuring diversity . . . at the university.'' He applauded the fact that the 45,000-student campus included a record number of minority students, with more than 3,300 blacks and 4,400 Hispanics.

To help in recruiting, UF has partnered with five mostly minority high schools in Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando. UF offers scholarships to the top five students at each school, and works with the faculty to help boost academic progress.

Colburn says UF doesn't have the resources or manpower to help more schools.

Critics of Talented 20 say the state has created a ``don't ask, don't tell'' type of program in which universities target minority high schools while saying they aren't looking at race.

``It's absurd,'' said Adora Obi Nweze, state NAACP president. ``The governor can't say this has been a success.''

First published: 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. -