Reita Kitt was the kind of high school graduate that colleges say they’re dying for.
A good student. A scholarship recipient. A participant in summer programs at the University of Idaho for high school students. And, as a Coeur d’Alene tribal descendent, an “underrepresented minority.”
And yet when Kitt was ready to enter the UI three years ago, she ran into the problems that many minority students discover when they arrive at the Inland Northwest’s colleges and universities: financial obstacles, cultural barriers, an inability to feel welcome and comfortable on campus. She never started classes – dropping out before she ever really began.
“I really wasn’t ready to go on to school yet,” said Kitt, who has since enrolled at North Idaho College.
Over the last decade, as colleges have made ethnic diversity one of their chief goals, they have made modest gains in the enrollment of minority students. But stubborn problems remain, including minority graduation rates consistently below average.
For Native American students in particular, the promises of higher education can sometimes seem like a distant shore. At WSU, the 280 Native American students enrolled is tied for the lowest figure in a decade. UI and EWU have seen Native enrollments rise by less than 20 students over the last 10 years – as the number of white students increased by thousands.
Their enrollments are comparable to or higher than the percentage of Indians in the populations of Washington or Idaho, but graduation rates for Indian students have lagged. Nationwide, fewer than four of every 10 Native American students who enrolled in college in 1997 graduated within six years – the standard measure of graduation rates in higher education.
Most Inland Northwest universities do a little better – WSU’s graduation rate for Native Americans who enrolled in 1997 was 42 percent, and it has improved to 56 percent over the most recent period. It has hovered around 40 percent at EWU, while at Idaho it ranged from 19 percent to 32 percent over the last several years.
The issue of college dropouts touches all students. The majority of black and Hispanic students nationwide drop out before graduating, and only 56 percent of all students nationwide graduate within six years of enrollment.
“Graduation rates for ethnic minorities and dominant culture students are way too low across the board,” said Raul Sanchez, director of the Center for Human Rights at WSU. “Are we doing enough? No, we’re not doing enough. Are we doing a lot? Yes, we’re doing a lot.”
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued a report this month that said the failure to bring minorities into higher education threatens the country’s wage-earning ability and competitiveness worldwide, given that the working-age minority population is expected to reach 37 percent by 2020. Another report, prepared by The Education Trust, notes that even as college dropout rates have stayed high, the importance of a college degree has grown.
“The rapidly globalizing 21st century economy is putting relentless pressure on lower-skill manufacturing jobs that once allowed people without a post-secondary education to stay comfortably in the middle class,” the report says. “This trend is growing, and there is no end in sight.”
‘Long way to go’
Over the past 10 years, colleges and universities have placed diversity among their top goals, have created committees and hired employees to improve the campus climate for members of minority groups, and have in some cases expanded their spending and their administrative efforts on the subject.
While there has been an increase in minority enrollments at area schools, the gains have been relatively modest – WSU’s minority enrollment has risen from 11.5 percent in 1995 to 13.2 percent this year. At UI, the rate has increased from 5.7 percent to 7 percent in the same decade.
“I am proud of our progress here at the University of Idaho. We’ve done a lot of things,” said Francisco Salinas, director of the UI Office of Multicultural Affairs. “Am I satisfied? Nope. Especially when you start comparing us to the national picture we’ve got a long way to go.”
The college dropout rate fits into a larger pattern in American schools that educators call the “achievement gap” between white students and many minorities. According to the report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, about 23 percent of white ninth-graders in 2001 could be expected to earn a bachelor’s degree – compared to 9 percent of blacks and 10 percent of Hispanics.
Joni Finney, vice president of the center, said there should be more coordination among school systems and more focus on making sure students are prepared to move from high school to college – where remedial problems are a significant issue for all dropouts.
“Over time, I think there have been efforts (to improve diversity),” she said. “I think what we’re seeing is that some of those efforts have brought us only so far.”
“It’s got to become everyone’s business. The way we divide education in this country – K-12 and higher ed – is really kind of a meaningless separation.”
For some, the focus on diversity has swung too far – critics of diversity initiatives say the subject has become a sacred cow, and that contrary opinions are squelched.
Earlier this year, a student in WSU’s College of Education complained about a character evaluation form that asks whether students understand the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.
Ed Swan was threatened with dismissal and ordered into diversity training over comments that he didn’t believe white people are privileged any more, opposed gay marriage and adoption, and wrote “diversity is perversity” in the margins of a book.
Swan denies that he’s a racist, and says WSU has elevated diversity to an unquestionable orthodoxy.
“These issues come up in every class, how white people have done so many things to minorities,” Swan said earlier this fall. “That comes up in almost every class.”
‘No brown faces’
Inland Northwest schools occupy a difficult place in terms of racial makeup. Pullman, Moscow, Cheney, Spokane – all are planted in the middle of a landscape that is overwhelmingly white by national comparisons.
Many of the students coming to those universities from Washington and Idaho, meanwhile, are from rural towns that make their universities seem models of diversity by comparison.
“For them, to come to WSU, it’s like, ‘Wow, this place is so diverse,’ ” said Stephen Bischoff, a retention counselor at the Asian-American Pacific Islander Student Center at WSU who grew up in Walla Walla.
But for WSU’s significant Asian population, many of whom come from the West Side, the impact of moving to Pullman is just the opposite, he said.
“In Seattle, seeing Asian-Americans is very common, you have a large community, little things like stores – so moving to WSU is a big change,” Bischoff said.
Many university officials say comparing the racial makeup of regional universities with regional towns is the wrong way to go. They say the universities should start by comparing themselves with state population breakdowns, but also consider the fact that they’re sending graduates out into a world that is more racially various than either Washington or Idaho.
“What responsibility do the institutions have to at the very least reflect the diversity of their state?” Sanchez said. “Both U of I and WSU claim to have a reach well beyond their individual states.”
Idaho’s minority population is minuscule by national standards, and the UI’s minority enrollment is within that range. However, the UI’s enrollment for Hispanic students falls well below the ratio of the state’s Hispanic population overall – 3 percent enrollment compared to a population of nearly 8 percent. And WSU and EWU both fall well short of the state of Washington’s overall minority population – estimated for 2003 at 22 percent by the state.
Gonzaga’s minority enrollment has been about 15 percent in recent years, while Whitworth’s has been roughly 11 percent.
Meanwhile, faculties at regional universities remain overwhelmingly white. WSU has made hiring more minority faculty members a high priority. At the UI, meanwhile, the student paper noted in September that just two black professors were on the faculty, and called for an improvement.
“If I go to a university function and I see no brown faces, no African Americans – it communicates something to me about who is excluded there,” said Salinas.
Slow and steady
For students of color, moving to the Palouse can be daunting. Kitt, who attended Potlatch High School, understands that firsthand. Most college freshmen are making a big adjustment, no matter what their background. For Native students, it often involves leaving a close-knit, unique environment for one that is foreign in many ways.
“Tribal culture shock is a big one,” she says.
Martin Boston, a black student at WSU who writes a column about racial issues for the Daily Evergreen, remembers meeting a group of fellow students his freshman year who expected him to be able to rap.
“I never rapped before, but it’s something that’s assumed,” said Boston, a senior in comparative ethnic studies from Oakland, Calif. “That’s the dominant culture. They don’t know about race.”
In a heated series of events at WSU last year, students at the Multicultural Center accused two basketball players of racial harassment, an incident that sparked demonstrations by minority students who accused the university of failing to respond.
Investigative reports by the university and the state cleared the basketball players of harassment, but many students at the multicultural center remain convinced the allegations were founded and that the university failed to deal with it properly.
In the last two years, WSU has taken several high-profile steps to address concerns about diversity, creating an office on the subject at the vice-presidential level, bringing in new recruiters, and shifting toward an emphasis on preventing dropouts in the multicultural center.
“I think they’re doing what they can, in fairness,” said Christopher Rutt, an Asian-American senior studying criminal justice at WSU. “These are issues that can’t be fixed in a day.”
Still, Rutt shares the opinion that last year’s incident was a case of harassment. And he said that such incidents aren’t uncommon on the Pullman campus.
“On a weekly basis, if not daily, there is some sort of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – basically any of your isms and phobias,” he said.
WSU is certainly not alone in this respect. Gonzaga had an incident earlier this year, when a noose was found around the neck of a Native American statue. Last year, EWU students held an affirmative action bake sale – a common stunt by campus conservatives intended to illustrate the imbalance of affirmative action by pricing items differently for whites and students of color.
Officials say the more important issue surrounds the daily experience of students – whether they feel comfortable and welcome, and whether schools are doing enough to help close the gap in graduation rates.
“If you look at the curve, it’s been slow but it’s been steady progress all those years,” said Bob Bates, WSU’s provost and chief administrator for the Pullman campus. “What we struggle with is having a climate that’s accepting and welcoming to women and minorities.”