By France Griggs Sloat
College was always in the plans for Prince Edward Johnson Moultrie II, whose grandfather came from the Gullah culture of former slave colonies off the South Carolina coast. But Xavier University never made it onto his short list.
He always perceived it as that expensive Catholic school for mostly suburban white kids. Then he met Dameon Alexander. Alexander, an admission recruiter, looks for minority students like Johnson at schools in large urban areas. In his junior year, Johnson says, Alexander came to his school in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, and talked about how Xavier could be the place for him.
“Xavier targeted me,” says Johnson. “He came to talk to us about college life. I’d thought about coming to Xavier, but I didn’t know if I could afford it. He told me about financial aid.”
Inspired by his father’s and grandfather’s goals for a better life, he’d considered several colleges, but when Xavier offered a substantial financial aid package, it won.
“They were really persistent,” Johnson says. “Dameon contacted me about 10 times.”
In light of the United States Supreme Court’s June 23 decision regarding the use of race in the college admission process, the question must be asked: Was Johnson brought on board through a targeted affirmative action program, or just good recruiting tactics? The answer, University officials say, is both. And the method appears to meet the litmus test of the Supreme Court.
In that long-awaited monumental decision, the justices said colleges have the constitutional right to consider an applicant’s race for admission in their quest for diversity but may not use formulas that arbitrarily give minority applicants favored status for their race. The court’s decisions concerning admission policies at the University of Michigan found its undergraduate admission practice of awarding extra points for an applicant’s race was unconstitutional, while its law school’s more holistic approach in considering race was acceptable.
What effect the decision holds for other universities—including Xavier—depends on their current practices. Large public universities that rely on the formula method to help winnow the huge volume of applications can’t do that anymore. Those schools without formula methods can keep doing what they’re doing with a clear conscience they’re not violating the Constitution.
“It’s like kissing your sister,” says Jim McCoy, associate vice president for enrollment services. “It’s neither fish nor fowl. What it says is you can use race, and the University has the opportunity to define what race means to the educational viability of its mission. But it can’t do it objectively.”
At Xavier, the decision was welcomed as an affirmation of what’s already taking place. “The fact they upheld the holistic decision-making process, that’s exactly what we do,” says dean of admission Marc Camille. “The ripple effect here will be very minimal.”
What Xavier does, Camille says, is look at race the same way it looks at other factors—where they grew up, were they privileged, did they show growth?
“We look at people as individuals and promise that we get to know people as well as possible and then make our best decision on whether to admit,” he says.
Xavier’s approach to affirmative action has been to focus on access. Rather than red-flagging the applications of minorities, it seeks to increase the pool of minorities who apply. Theoretically, if more apply, more get in.
Increasing the pool takes aggressive marketing to put the Xavier name in front of potential students. Admission officers such as Alexander target high school students in urban centers such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Indianapolis. They send mailers to students and make personal visits to schools, often returning to reinforce the Xavier message.
Such aggressive minority recruitment is beginning to pay off. The pool of minority applicants is overflowing—due in part to a new free online application process, which has triggered an increase in all applications. Nevertheless, minority applications for this fall grew by 72 percent over last year, including a 93 percent jolt for black applicants alone.
Applications from prospective Hispanic students are up, too, by 30 percent. And though the numbers of minorities who actually enroll remain small, they’re beginning to inch upward. This year’s freshman class of 800 students has more than 100 minorities, including 63 black students, 19 Asian and 18 Hispanic. Minority enrollment is 13 percent of the total, up from 10.5 percent in 1999. The next step is to convert applicants into students, McCoy says.
The growth is chipping away at the University’s long-standing image as rich and white. Black students are more likely to see other black faces in a classroom today than five years ago, students say. With applications from black students numbering 1,024 this year, that trend seems to be going only one way—upward.
Paul James, director for the University’s office of multicultural affairs, applauds the court’s decision. But what really strikes him is the leadership qualities these students are bringing to campus: Black students now hold positions as student government association president, chair of its student activities committee and vice president for legislative affairs. James says the University’s black student association is the most active group of its kind in the region. A university’s ability to bring in bright students from differing backgrounds is important to expose them to today’s more global environment, he says.
“And it enhances the classroom experience when you’re dealing with people who can speak from different perspectives.”
The downside, he says, is that the numbers of black men enrolling are overshadowed by the women. Of the 274 black full-time undergraduate students on campus last year, only 69 were men.
“Lyndon Johnson was trying to right some wrongs [by creating affirmative action] because America has a past that hasn’t been favorable to large numbers of people,” he says. “The key now is access to a better way of life.”
A life that Prince Johnson’s grandfather would be proud to know.