Not Time to Stop and Smell the Roses
It was last December when Texas A&M University President Dr. Robert Gates upset the proverbial applecart with his announcement that Texas' second largest university would not factor race into its admissions policy. This came just months following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the University of Michigan cases that overturned the U.S. 5th Circuit Hopwood ruling that had banned affirmative action in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi since 1996.
Needless to say, a majority of Texas' minority legislators were taken aback by Texas A&M's position. Over the past few years, we've witnessed the exodus of many of Texas' best and brightest young minds to other states offering incentives to minority students that are unavailable here. Once these scholars leave and establish roots near college communities, few return. That is Texas' loss, because in this day of rapid technological change, our future is inexorably linked to a diverse and educated workforce.
Following Texas A&M's announcement, Dr. Gates' presence was requested in Austin. Before a panel of legislators he was told - in no uncertain terms - that whatever plan A&M devised had better work. Gates solemnly vowed that it would. We took him at his word. But given Texas A&M's historically low minority enrollment levels, we felt that the university should use every tool at its disposal in addressing what remains a highly-sensitive issue for many. We could not and cannot fathom why A&M would not agree.
Last month, Texas A&M released figures that tout increased minority enrollment at its College Station campus for the Fall 2004 semester. These numbers indicate that first-year incoming African American enrollment has grown 35 percent, from 158 students admitted in Fall 2003, to 213 for Fall 2004. Hispanic student enrollment increased 26 percent over last year's numbers from 692 to 869 this fall. Asian-American enrollment increased 15 percent from 234 to 268.
While those numbers evoke guarded optimism and reflect a move in the right direction, they cannot escape assessment in the context of the university's weak track record when it comes to minority enrollment. More than 44,500 students attend Texas A&M. Despite these increases, African American and Asian American students respectively, are about 3 percent of the Texas A&M student body. Hispanic students fare better at 12 percent. Combined for 2003, just over 14 percent of College Station undergraduates were classified as minorities.
Compare these numbers to those of The University of Texas, the state's other flagship institution. UT's enrollment figures for Fall 2004 show that minority enrollment for incoming freshmen increased by 38 percent over last year's totals. UT's minority enrollment is at 37 percent this year. African Americans make up 4 percent of the 2004, UT-Austin student body. Hispanics are 15 percent. Asian-Americans represent 17 percent of UT students. With UT's decision to include race as a factor in admissions for 2005, that margin may increase.
Over half - 51 percent - of all Texans between the age of 15 and 34 are Hispanic or Black. Statewide, 38 percent of students attending public colleges and universities are Hispanic or Black. As you can see, despite the gains, much work remains.
Perhaps Texas A&M should pursue minorities for academics with the same tenacity in which they recruit African American student-athletes. In 2002-03, 21 percent of scholarship athletes were African-American males or females. The same year, of the 83 football players on scholarship, 53 of them were African American. Seven of the 13 male basketball players and 11 of the 19 female hoopsters on scholarship were African American. While we are elated that these young people have been provided the opportunity to further their education via their athletic prowess, we would cheer just as loudly to see engineering students bound across the platform, the recipient of a college degree. We'll trade two linebackers for a veterinarian.
We are heartened that Dr. Gates and the leadership at Texas A&M have committed to improving the university's minority enrollment through the creation of its Regents Scholarships, as well as their strategic outreach efforts across the state. Their plans must continue to build upon these gains. But until minority enrollment - not only at College Station, but all across Texas - becomes representative of the growing multiethnic trends evidenced by state demographers, this is no time to stop and smell the roses.