Original URL: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2003/11/09/colleges_debate_minority_students_woes/

Colleges debate minority students' woes
The Boston Globe
By Jenna Russell
After two semesters at the College of the Holy Cross, Luz Colon-Rodriguez was ready to quit. Well-prepared academically, the native of Puerto Rico felt isolated on the Worcester campus, where 87 percent of students are white.

"I felt very alone here," said Colon-Rodriguez, 19, the first person in her family to go to college.

Colon-Rodriguez almost transferred to a school closer to her mother and sisters in Pennsylvania; she decided to stay only after she joined a campus multicultural society.

Her early struggles point to a persistent problem at many of the country's most selective colleges: Black and Hispanic students tend to leave school at far higher rates than do their white classmates.

Five months after the Supreme Court endorsed affirmative action, resolving decades of debate over race in college admissions, the leaders of the country's top small colleges are beginning to tackle issues concerning minority students.

More than 20 college presidents, including the heads of Barnard, Williams, Trinity, and Wellesley, met Friday in Boston to address the issues.

"We had a very good recruiting year, and through hard work, we tripled the number of African-American students in our freshman class," said the president of Bates College, Elaine Tuttle Hansen. "That's what makes this project so important. Getting them here is so hard; we can't afford to blow it."

The problem of lower grades and graduation rates from members of minority groups is a concern not just for students and their families, but for colleges that dedicate time and money to admit a diverse class of freshmen, only to see that class grow whiter as minority students drop out or transfer before graduating.

The presidents' group, known as the Consortium on High Achievement and Success, is urging close examination of the experience of enrolled minority students.

Small, rural campuses in mostly white states -- such as consortium members Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Bates -- have long struggled to attract and keep black and Hispanic students who don't immediately feel comfortable in the privileged and fairly homogeneous campus environment. Other barriers are harder to pinpoint, embedded in the culture of institutions that spent generations catering to white students.

"From a historical perspective, there are bound to be obstacles we don't even see, because the institutions were built over hundreds of years of not being very diverse," said Hansen, the Bates president.

According to the consortium, the six-year graduation rate for white students at the country's most selective colleges and universities is more than 20 points higher than the rate for blacks, and seven points higher than that of Hispanics. Minorities also study advanced math and science, graduate with honors, and pursue advanced degrees at lower rates than do white students.

Not everyone agrees about the reasons for the inequity. Some researchers have pointed a finger at black student culture and peer pressure; others have mentioned the theory of inferior preparation in high school.

The consortium's quest for reasons, and solutions, began more than three years ago at Trinity College in Hartford, where administrators had grown frustrated by the higher minority dropout rate. After an analysis of the admissions process found that black and Hispanic students who enrolled were no less qualified than whites, the school turned its attention to the lives of minorities on campus.

Realizing Trinity's small enrollment would limit the investigation, they invited other small, selective schools to join them. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, in Quincy, contributed $400,000.

At the heart of the three-year-old initiative is data-sharing by the 35 member colleges, so leaders can see which schools are keeping their minority students and then seek the reasons for their success.

The data also provide competitive motivation. "It holds our feet to the fire, because all the institutions see where we are," said Sharon Herzberger, a Trinity vice president and chairwoman of the steering committee.

The data are also needed to describe the problem: The statistic the consortium uses to highlight its mission -- a 20-point racial gap in elite-college graduation rates -- dates to the 1980s. More recently, the Department of Education studied 9,000 students who began college in 1995 and found a similar gap.

At Friday's meeting, presidents, deans, and provosts listened to experts on the causes of minority underperformance, shared successful techniques for keeping students, and approved a joint statement reaffirming their intent to solve the problem. Their ideas ranged from simple programs, such as late-night dorm discussion groups connecting students of different races, to more sophisticated considerations about what makes students feel welcome.

At Trinity changes have ranged from free flu shots for students on financial aid to intensive peer-mentoring programs in the sciences.

At Holy Cross, Colon-Rodriguez said the turning point in her happiness on campus came when she started mentoring younger students, and found an academic adviser who shares her Puerto Rican roots. She now plans to pursue a doctoral degree in history and wants to be a professor. "At this point," she said, "I consider myself a Crusader," the Holy Cross mascot.

"Holy Cross isn't just Abercrombie-and-Fitch, middle-class America," she said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company