U wants to enroll more students of color, and keep them

The U has been increasing efforts to recruit students of color.
Mana Uppili gives a tour at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus on Friday. The school has been increasing efforts over the last several years to recruit students of color.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The University of Minnesota is increasing efforts to recruit students of color to its Twin Cities campus, with a focus on black students.

And while numbers aren't where the school would like them to be, the U is starting to see results.

Senior Cheniqua Johnson grew up in Worthington. After living in a small town that is mostly white and Hispanic, she wanted a broader college experience.

"I didn't have a lot of African-American friends growing up so one of the things I really wanted to do is discover that identity of mine," she said. "Basically just going through and meeting my people, that's what my goal was."

For three days before the entire school orientation event for first years, the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence holds a kickoff for students of color.

"There was about 500-600 multicultural students that come to campus early. Move in early, everything early. That was the best part of my welcome week. That was really helpful," Johnson said, adding that she made connections that have lasted through her four years.

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As recruitment for next year's class kicks into full gear, the university admissions office is scheduling campus tours, sending recruiters out across the country and sending out applications to potential students.

The school is also tailoring tours and programs specifically for students of color.

In the past, the U has struggled to attract black students. Shakeer Abdullah, the assistant vice president in the office of equity and diversity at the university, said when the school shut the General College about a decade ago, there was a perception among some African-Americans in the state that the university wasn't interested in serving them.

At the time, the General College was 48 percent students of color.

Abdullah said he knows the school needs to focus on serving those populations.

"The bottom line is helping people understand that we've come to do work," he said.

According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, 6.2 percent of the state's population is black.

At the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, the percentage of black students enrolled in all schools is about 4.85 percent. For undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus, the percentage of black students is more than 5.5 percent, up from almost 4.5 percent five years ago.

"We know we have work to do, but I think we have made some concerted efforts to change the narrative and really change the actual numbers," Abdullah said. "We have been deliberate."

For Abdullah's office and the admissions office, the goal is to improve those numbers.

The school is using more direct marketing, recruiting and events that focus on specific groups. For example, the office of admissions will host a reception next month for young African-American men.

"We've been able to create new programs that are making a difference and this is not a short-term game, particularly in the recruitment of African-Americans and other underrepresented folks," Abdullah said.

The admissions office has five full-time staff members dedicated to recruiting students of color.

Last year, Isra Hassan was a senior at Anoka High School, and pretty sure about one thing: "I wasn't really interested in coming to the U at all. I only applied for my parents' sake because they really wanted me to."

But then she visited the campus with her parents, and she said she felt at home.

"Even when you're taking a tour here, they really do emphasize how they are very into diversity and inclusion," she said. "And I just felt like if there were to be any problems coming here in the future, I could somehow get it resolved and I didn't have to worry about my identity interfering with my education."

Johnson, the senior, said she'd like to see the university focus more on retention of students of color. She's happy to see the U is interested in hiring more nonwhite faculty, administrators and recruiters, but she'd like to see more.

The university still is battling graduation gaps between black and white students. Retention rates of students of color have climbed, according to the university, from 89 percent in 2010 to 93.6 percent in 2015.

"We come into each year knowing there can be improvement in what we do, how we work with students, how we communicate with students, we've shown that from a numbers standpoint," said Barkley Barton, associate director of admissions. "But we know there's little tweaks we can make and hopefully have a better experience for those students."