As the first numbers on the composition of incoming freshman classes trickle in next month, many colleges and universities take substantial credit for increasing their pool of minority enrollment. They link their claim to ambitious and noble goals usually expressed as a pillar of the college's strategic plan.
The higher education community is right to be worried about minority enrollment and wise to look for ways to improve it. From a policy perspective, higher education must ask a fundamental question: "Do we want the composition of our student body to mirror the demographics that will define America in a global setting in the 21st century?"
Most involved in college governance -- trustees, administrators and faculty -- say that they do. The problem arises when they try to move their philosophical principles to implementation.
The first caution is to be careful about the definition of "diversity." In a front-page article in the Boston Globe this past weekend, Laura Krantz noted that minority recruitment success often corresponds to a surge in enrolled international students. In a city in which 24 percent of the population is black, large and prestigious private universities enroll only 3 to 6 percent of their incoming student body from the black community.
These findings suggest that it may be better to peel the onion layers to understand what minority recruitment means. In fairness to admission recruiters with a finite admissions pool, the recruitment of Asians, Hispanics, and international students, among others, makes good sense as their efforts to globalize the student population increase. Further, certain "home court" advantages such as the opportunity to attend college in attractive, student-centered "college towns" like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., are difficult to overcome on suburban and rural campuses.
Recruitment costs money. Efforts to attract minorities, especially from the international applicants seeking an American education, can bring in more full-pays and less financially needy students. It's a way to globalize the campus, pay the bills, and fund recruitment of more needy minority students, from whatever backgrounds they may come.
Yet the costs are enormous. Ms. Krantz notes that for black students arriving on Boston-area campuses, the cultural "shock" can be substantial as black students feel isolated and turn inward or look beyond the campus for a support network. Colleges and universities are now beginning to prioritize their recruitment of faculty and staff to reflect the student demographic changes that they seek.
And then there is the question of money. Do you buy diversity on campus? Do you do so by providing spaces for minority students that had been offered to others with equal or better qualifications? Is it better to pass over another qualified "surfer kid" from California to accomplish these goals?
If an admissions budget is a rationing tool, how do you meet institutional strategic goals to recruit minority faculty, students and staff and pay for the privilege of doing so?
American colleges and universities should take credit for bringing their recruitment practices closer into line with their institution's strategic goals. But it will take more than assigning "minority" recruiters within an admissions office. The problem is an internal one with historical dimensions. How do you recruit better, smarter and more efficiently?
Perhaps the best way is to go first to where traditional minority recruitment is weakest: among American black high school students. In the end, the problem may be less about specialized recruitment counselors and money than about how to fix a broken pipeline and provide a better safety net.
The first step to repair the broken pipeline is to provide an integrated, seamless pathway between basic and higher education -- often through community colleges -- that is bigger than any one recruitment season at a single institution, regardless of its scale or wealth.
As the saying goes, thieves rob banks because that is where the money is. For most colleges and universities, four-year higher education leadership -- at all levels -- must radically rethink its relationship with community colleges where so many black students who aspire to a four-year degree get their start. To do so, they must avoid raiding community college classrooms but work instead with two-year colleges to develop a pathway for community college graduates seeking a four-year degree.
Is it possible for a four-year college community to welcome upper-division black students?
If they do, these four-year colleges must be prepared to pay for the costs to mentor black students, develop a safety net, change their staff and faculty recruitment policies and admissions protocol -- and indeed their inbred and inherited culture -- and assess what they do to prove their policies work.
Not everyone needs to attend college to obtain a good job. But for most college continues to be the principal route to a good life. It's time now for a national conversation between community colleges and public and private four-year colleges and universities about how to create a pipeline that offers a pathway for minorities, especially black students.
The numbers will improve if we do. Better yet will be that colleges and universities will live up to the principles that guide their development, shape a 21st-century workforce, and address some of the worst aspects of rising income inequality.