College News

Progress for whom?: Students grow impatient with stagnant diversity enrollment despite university’s largest class yet

Campus administrators say they value diversity in the makeup of the student body, but underrepresented students believe the university is not working hard enough. 

Image By: Laura Mahoney

The most recent freshman class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the largest in the school’s history. But a record number of underrepresented students decided to go elsewhere.

In the fall 2017 class, there was a dip in the university’s yield rate — the percentage of students that enrolled out of the total students that were admitted — across virtually all underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds.

For all underrepresented students, known in the data as total minority students, the yield rate was 28.5 percent, the first time it dipped below 30 percent in the last 10 years. The yield rate for African-Americans dropped from 37.7 percent to 30.9 percent. For white students, the rate was 39.7 percent, also a new low.

However, 54.3 percent of underrepresented applicants were admitted, the highest percentage since 2009. African-Americans specifically had a 39.4 percent acceptance rate, the largest over the 10 years of the data.

According to Steve Hahn, vice provost for Enrollment Management, this year’s low yield rate in spite of a larger freshmen class can be largely attributed to this being UW-Madison’s first year on the Common App.

The application allows prospective students to apply to numerous schools by answering additional questions instead of going to the UW System website for an entirely separate application.

“It makes it easier for the non-residents to find us and it makes it easier to apply,” Hahn said. “That doesn’t mean they’re serious.”

But junior and president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union Tashiana Lipscomb said the Common App reasoning seems like an excuse after numerous diversity crises, such as a spectator wearing a noose costume at Camp Randall Stadium and several incidents of anti-semitic vandalism, pushed campus climate issues to the forefront.

She believes rather that prospective students realized UW-Madison may not be as progressive as they’ve heard after these incidents made their way around social media.

“Now this liberal reputation that UW-Madison has already had, is starting to get attacked,” she said.

Campus enrollment shows weak recruitment progress, frustrates students of color

For students of color on campus, the makeup of this class is all too familiar.

Of the more than 6,600 new studentswelcomed onto campus, 17.6 percent were American students of color. In 2016, that population was 18.2 percent; in 2015, it was 16.1 percent. And as incidents of racial bias become more prevalent on campus, students’ patience has become strained.

In a 2014 document, members of the university’s Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee recommended the university “continue to identify, recruit, and support promising applicants from diverse backgrounds.”

According to the committee, one of the long-term indicators of success would be if “students at UW-Madison are increasingly representative of multiple dimensions of diversity.”

But the data shows that underrepresented enrollment has been stagnant.

In the most recent campus climate survey results, more than 40 percent of students of color felt expected to represent the “point of view” of their identities in the classroom. Patrick Sims, vice provost of Diversity and Climate and Chief Diversity Officer, said this isn’t news.

“We have a responsibility to be clear in what our students are going to be walking into,” Sims said, noting that Wisconsin is a predominantly white institution, adding that “the cultural competency support that my staff provides for our students is critical.”

Because UW-Madison is a predominantly white university, Sims noted it is important that his office provides extensive support.

Hahn said the enrollment of students of color is not worrisome, but added it is an urgent matter the university must continue to address.

“This identifies for me the need to look at what other schools are doing in terms of yielding students of color,” said Hahn, who expects to add some innovations to financial aid support as soon as next year.

However, many students haven’t sensed this urgency, arguing that the university is comfortable unless it’s criticized for its lacking diversity. Former ASM Chair Carmen Goséy addressed her experience in a final letter to students last semester where she asked parents of students of color to reconsider sending their children to the university.

“Now I see that this University was not designed for the success of minority communities; it was designed for white students to learn about my oppression while not having to participate in dismantling it,” wrote Goséy.

When asked whether or not she would choose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison again, Lipscomb couldn’t say.

“I feel like my answer changes every time,” said Lipscomb. “And a lot of times it’s because I’m not sure.”

Student Council Representative Ekenedilichukwu Ikegwuani, a Minnesota resident, also wasn’t sure if he would return to UW-Madison again, citing the diversity at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as a major draw.

Sims said the university won’t get out of this situation overnight and that Goséy discovered the difficulty in moving this needle.

“You can’t legislate hearts and minds,” he said. “Our main focus is on improving the quality of the experience of the students who are here.”

Sims added that the narrative about people of colors’ experiences depend on which story you tell.

But for Ikegwuani the story is clear. Both he and Lipscomb felt that while in high school, they had very little interaction with the university.

“In my opinion, the university doesn’t really recruit black people and students of color from local areas,” said Lipscomb. “A lot of it is going out, looking for big money, I guess.”

She said that while at Reagan IB High School in Milwaukee, she remembers UW-Madison recruiters coming to her school and not interacting with students of color.

When asked about the fact that African-Americans have comprised roughly two percent of recent classes, Hahn said there’s never a “number” he’s shooting for because he always would like to maximize diversity.

Sims similarly didn’t suggest a percentage to reach for all students of color, but said simply that it needs to be higher.

“I genuinely believe that it is a function of quality of our university to have as diverse a population of students as we can possibly have,” said Hahn.

Hahn said it’s his job as an administrator in admissions to “build” a class, not “admit” a class.

Still, students of color believe it’s time recruitment efforts match administrative rhetoric.

“There’s a larger population that you could be pulling from that you’re not,” said Ikegwuani. “There are a number of black students in this state that could be coming here that aren’t.”

Lipscomb said the university needs to spend more of its resources tackling diversity instead of just talking about the important issues that people of color face.

“If you’re saying that you want to see these results, put your money there,” she said.

Sims said that as head of diversity, he can sound the alarm, but can’t do the work for everybody.

“I have to be the person that has to constantly remind folks that we do have a responsibility and it’s a shared responsibility and ask the tough question: ‘What are you gonna do?’”

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