Minority student enrollment rises across Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A decade after Gov. Jeb Bush announced his controversial plan to end race-based university admissions, the number of minority students statewide has risen, according to a Times/Herald review of enrollment figures.

“That certainly flies in the face of those who were predicting Armageddon all those years ago,” said universities Chancellor Frank Brogan. He was Bush’s lieutenant governor during the launch of One Florida, a plan that sparked marches and sit-ins in the Capitol and across the state. The increasing diversity of Florida’s 11 public universities has been fueled mostly by Hispanic enrollment — from 13.8 percent to 18 percent statewide — which reflects in part the changing demographics of the Sunshine State.

Black enrollment offers a mixed picture: a statewide dip, from 14 percent to 13.6 percent, with increases at some universities, decreases at others. For example, the University of South Florida in Tampa went from 9.2 percent to 11.5 percent black enrollment while Florida International University in Miami dropped from 14.6 percent to 12.4 percent.

“I’m of mixed opinion as to whether or not it’s ultimately had a negative impact on diversity,” USF Admissions Director Bob Spatig said of eliminating race-based admissions. “It certainly hasn’t on the growing Hispanic population... But I think in some ways we’re all stretching as much as we can to make sure it doesn’t impact our African-American numbers.”

College admissions officials agree, though, that One Florida better focused their attentions on diversity and alternative methods to recruit minorities. They now look at factors like geography, family college history, and socioeconomics. They reach out to first-generation students through scholarships and have closer ties with schools in low-income, urban areas.

“I think for the most part, universities stepped up,” said John Barnhill, longtime director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Jamel Langley could have gone to Florida A&M, the state’s historically black university where his father is a professor. But instead Langley, who is black, chose the University of Florida.

“I knew there wouldn’t be as many minorities here at UF, but I love that when I walk around, I see people I’ve never seen before,” said Langley, 21. “College is the chance you get to see the world from different views.”

Bush announced the admissions changes eliminating race as a factor in November 1999.

One Florida set off a firestorm of opposition. Two of the most outspoken critics, lawmakers Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill, staged a sit-in for 25 hours until Bush agreed to slow down implementation of the admissions changes. Three weeks after the sit-in, 1,000 students marched into the Capitol to give Bush their critique of One Florida.

Bush and four Florida A&M students met and came up with this: race was still out as a factor, but the admissions changes’ effect on diversity would be regularly reviewed.

“The system as it currently exists in Florida is far from perfect, but the broader discussion of removing obstacles and creating access to higher education for Florida’s children and their families happened as a result of public input,” said Meek, now a U.S. Representative, D-Miami, in a statement this week.

“It’s always nice to have your ideas validated,” Bush said during a recent interview about the increase in minority enrollment. “But the important thing is that students of all backgrounds are getting an opportunity, and the students are stronger than ever.”

Monitoring enrollment numbers

In the years since One Florida took effect, colleges have carefully monitored their minority enrollment numbers. Some universities show more dramatic gains, the result of varying recruiting efforts and geographic realities.

FIU saw Hispanic enrollment grow from 50.9 to nearly 60 percent — not surprising given its location in heavily Hispanic South Florida. USF likewise saw Hispanics increase from 8.8 percent to 12.6 percent.

“One Florida allowed us to continue having targeted recruitment,” Spatig said. “What’s restricted is the ability to use it in the admissions decision. But we can still do a recruitment program that’s targeted at African Americans.”

So USF recruits from some rural high schools where the students are mostly white and the first to attend college. But it also recruits from more than 100 high schools where the students are mostly Hispanic and black and low-income.

Spatig and his team look for students from D- and F-rated schools who outperform their peers in test scores, GPA and extracurricular activities. Some 750 students benefit from three USF programs that offer intense academic advising for first-generation students, most of whom are minorities.

Juan Soltero, a native of Puerto Rico, is the first Hispanic student body president at USF. His vice president? A native of Brazil.

“It’s something we’re very proud of,” said Soltero, 21, whose family lives in Brandon. “Our library, our student union, are places where you really see the diversity.”