The growing diversity of Minnesota’s colleges can be measured in numbers, figures and graphs. Abdul Suleyman hasn’t seen the pie charts, but he has seen the cafeteria.
"When I was a freshman, there were only three or four black guys," said the 22-year-old senior at Gustavus Adolphus College. "People would have us confused. It went from that to now, there’s maybe 15 of us."
At Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Tereza Ponce de Leon is part of the most diverse freshman class in history. The color palette on college campuses is changing.
Thanks in part to a big jump this fall, the number of students of color going to college is way up. From suburban community college campuses to small-town schools like Gustavus, the growth goes beyond statistics. These students are changing how professors teach and campuses feel.
"It’s a fascinating moment," said Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College and chair of the Minnesota Private College Council. "We’re in constant conversation about what this means and what a gift this is."
College was "always a big dream" of Ponce de Leon’s. A program for low-income students called Admission Possible helped her focus her ambitions. Pregnancy narrowed her college search, but it only heightened her commitment to going. "I had to think not only about myself, but what would be better for the future of my son."
This fall, students of color make up 43 percent of the first-year, daytime undergraduate class at Augsburg. In total, a full quarter of the college’s undergraduates are students of color — up from 8.6 percent in 2001.
Augsburg has lots of company. Enrollment of undergraduates of color is up nearly 90 percent in the last decade at the 17 member schools of the Minnesota Private College Council. Meanwhile, white enrollment grew less than 4 percent.
In the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the enrollment of low-income, minority and first-generation college students — groups considered "underrepresented" — is up 22 percent this fall over last year.
"We had not seen anything like it before," said Linda Baer, senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.
Experts say the economy is one reason, but Terria Middlebrook, a 22-year-old student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, sees something bigger going on:
"We are getting smarter knowing there is potential for us out there," she said. "Our President Obama is one example to us African-Americans showing that we do have potential to succeed, but it’s up to us to move forward."
"Pretty much college answers it all," she said.
We’re here. Now what?
The big jumps in minority enrollment are the buzz of admissions offices around the country. With the college-age population decreasing and becoming much more diverse, colleges will need to recruit a more diverse student body to keep classrooms full.
But Augsburg Prof. David Lapakko had heard the buzz one too many times. In early October, he wrote a post on the college’s internal forum: "I must confess that I’m tired of hearing that the world — and our classrooms — are more diverse than in years past. To that I say, ‘Well, duh.’"
Diversity is one of Augsburg’s great strengths and "a critical part of a liberal arts education," Lapakko said. But with it come challenges that need to be discussed.
Teachers can make some changes easily, he said, such as avoiding slang that confuses students whose first language is not English.
Not so easy is the "big question colleges have been forced to take a hard look at," he said. That is: How much are professors willing and able to change how they teach or what they teach to reach the class that now sits before them?
"It’s kind of like the elephant in the living room," he said. "People don’t want to talk about the bad parts of it, the difficult parts."
Getting students in the door is only one part of a college’s job. Graduating them is another. Colleges and universities aren’t as good at graduating students of color as they are white students.
Black, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to attend part time and less likely to graduate than white or Asian students, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
The office’s 2009 report shows that at two-year schools such as community colleges — where much of the growth is occurring — fewer than half of the students of color either completed a credential or transferred to another institution within three years.
"It’s about not only bringing more people through the doors, but making sure that they are achieving and succeeding at the same rate," said MnSCU’s Baer.
MnSCU is one of 24 public college and university systems that just pledged to shrink the gap in college-going and degree completion between their traditional population and low-income students and students of color by 2015.
White kids care, too
Cheng Lee first saw Gustavus as a high school senior in Upward Bound, a program designed to increase the number of low-income and first-generation students in college. He thought the hilltop campus was beautiful and liked the idea of getting away from the distractions of St. Paul, where his Hmong family lives.
He began giving campus tours his freshman year and has watched the campus change through the eyes of the visiting high school students. A decade ago, fewer than 5 percent of students at Gustavus Adolphus College were a color other than white. This year, about 12 percent are.
"They always ask about the diversity — the numbers, the facts and figures," Lee said. "But the main selling point is actually seeing students of color. If they see them walking by and saying hi to me, they really respond to that."
White kids are asking about diversity, too.
"These kids at Eden Prairie, they’re used to a diverse population in their school," said Mark Anderson, dean of admission and vice president for admission and financial aid.
Gustavus recruits white students whose applications show that they value diversity.
"We consider them equally important in order to be allies in what we want our campus to ultimately become," said Virgil Jones, director of multicultural programs. "It does me no good to recruit you to come to school here if the majority of the white students don’t want you here."
The college offers peer and faculty mentors to all first-year, underrepresented students. Advisers meet with each student every semester. Tutors set up shop in the college’s diversity center, as well as the individual colleges.
But there’s still room to improve, Jones said.
The college still deals with the occasional racist incident. The diversity of faculty and staff still lags. St. Peter could use a barbershop that knows black hair.
About 20 years ago, Anderson was mentoring a student who asked him: "You know why I sit in the front row?" He guessed wrong. "’No, Mark,’ she told me. ‘It’s because I don’t want to see that I’m the only one in the classroom who looks like me.’
"Now, that doesn’t happen anymore," he said. "And that’s pretty exciting."