August 29, 2006 in City

Diversity slow in coming

By The Spokesman-Review

Washington’s colleges and universities have spent eight years trying to offset a drop in minority enrollments after the state’s voters passed an initiative outlawing racial preferences in admissions.

And yet the situation remains largely the same.

African American, Latino and Native American students are less likely to go from high school to college – and more likely to drop out – than their white peers. And the chances that they’ll see a faculty member of color are slim – statewide, fewer than 5 percent of faculty members are black, Hispanic or Indian.

Meanwhile, minority groups are the fastest-growing parts of the population, expected to reach 28 percent of Washington’s population by 2020.

“I think there has been progress – it’s just been slow progress,” said Ricardo Sanchez, an associate director of education policy for the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. “People are feeling more and more the need to do better.”

Sanchez is coordinating a HEC Board initiative that’s attempting to capitalize on that. A draft report – expected to be ready for a final vote in late September – analyzes Washington’s diversity efforts since the passage of Initiative 200 in 1998, and it recommends a range of steps to improve things.

Educators gathered Monday night at Spokane Falls Community College to discuss the report, the first in a series of forums statewide.

“To many of us, the issue of diversity has a sense of urgency,” said Ben Cabildo, a board member for the Community Colleges of Spokane who helped bring the forum to SFCC. “It affects our lives on a day-to-day basis.”

Some people at the forum said the report contains a lot of ideas that have been heard before, but for which steady, long-term funding has been elusive. Gary Livingston, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, said he’s become accustomed to hearing about good programs that end after a year or two when the money runs out.

“There are so many false starts in what we do that we fail to see students through,” he said.

Among the report’s recommendations: establishing pre-college summer scholarship programs for minority students to bring them to campuses; expanding college outreach programs in high schools and junior highs; offering incentives and visiting professorships for faculty members of color; and developing goals and an “accountability” system for diversity.

The report concludes that, while minority enrollments have recovered from a drop after 1998, they’ve now stalled or declined across the board. With Washington’s minority population expected to grow from 22 percent to 28 percent by 2020, the report’s authors conclude, the state needs to reverse that. They argue that college diversity is important to promote a healthy, fair society, to enrich the educational experience and to enhance competitiveness in a global economy.

Livingston has faced diversity challenges in a variety of positions, including as superintendent of Spokane Public Schools. This summer, CCS spent about $10,000 advertising faculty openings in the Seattle and Tacoma area, in the hopes of attracting more diverse candidates, he said. But it didn’t produce an increase in the schools’ faculty members of color.

He figures that’s partly due to Spokane’s long-standing issue with minority recruitment – its overwhelmingly white population.

“Diversity begets more diversity,” he said. “Higher ed is the focus of this report, but if you talk to the Chamber or the (Economic Development Council) or businesses in general, they would say a lack of diversity is a challenge to this community and a challenge to this economy.”

While I-200 banned specific racial preferences and quotas in admissions, universities have remained committed to broadening ethnic diversity. Washington State University has a nine-page list of diversity initiatives that include conferences, the creation of faculty positions, housing plans and tutoring.

At Monday’s forum, Melynda Huskey, assistant vice president for equity and diversity at WSU, talked about the school’s efforts. Among them is using institutional data to explore patterns more deeply.

She said WSU’s first Equity Scorecard showed that black students make up 2.7 percent of full-time undergrads, but just 1.3 percent of degrees in science, technology, engineering and business. The next step for WSU is to work in those areas to recruit and retain students of color, she said.

Eastern Washington University just hired its first faculty fellow for diversity, James Ochwa-Echel, who will teach, help develop multicultural curricula and guide overall diversity efforts.

At the Community Colleges of Spokane, outreach programs have been developed to let young minority students know about their options early – long before they start talking to a high school guidance counselor.

But the HEC Board’s draft report concludes that, while individual schools have undertaken a lot of diversity initiatives, they “do not address a greater need for systemic change.”

Sanchez said that colleges have done a good job of increasing enrollments over the past few decades. Currently, most ethnic minorities enroll in college at about the same level as their overall proportion in the state population – with the exception of Hispanic students.

But overall academic success rates show a different picture. Sanchez cited a Census Bureau report that says between 1971 and 2001, 33 out of every 100 white kindergartners went on to earn a college degree.

For black kindergartners, that figure was 18. For Latinos, it was 11. For Native Americans, it was seven.

The factors that brought about that disparity are complicated, and can’t be solved with short-term approaches, several participants in Monday’s forum said.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Jim Perez, executive vice president of the Institute for Extended Learning. “But I feel like there’s a whole lot of people who’ve stepped up to the plate.”

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