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The changing face of USF

The dozens of school buses outside the Special Events Center are the first clues that USF is putting on its best face.

Inside, the floor of the SEC is filled with sophomore and junior high-school students clutching USF info bags. On stage, Tyvi Small, USF coordinator of multicultural admissions, is warming up the crowd, eliciting a cheer or a rehearsed chant as he names the 25 participating high schools.

For these particular high-school students, USF scheduled a day filled with workshops on financial aid, admissions and college survival. Book-ending the laid-on lunch was a performance by the USF Gospel Choir and a step show from Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc. Other than the fact that USF is prepared to go that little bit further to court them, the students share one thing in common: Each of the approximately 250 attendees is black.

“Showcase USF” is one of many programs and events USF organizes to target successful minority high-school students. Each year, participating high schools are asked to nominate up to 10 high-achieving black students to attend. The event gives USF admissions staff a full day to sell USF to a group that is highly prized by institutions seeking to satisfy strategic enrollment plans criteria for representation of minorities on campus. A similar event for Hispanic high-school students is scheduled for April 14.

“It’s very important. (To attract) the brightest minority students is very competitive,” said Dewey Hollerman, director for admissions at USF. “They are a group of students every college is looking for.”

Since Gov. Jeb Bush’s Florida One plan banned race-sensitive admissions policies in 2000, USF, like other state universities in Florida, is prohibited from using race as a factor in determining admissions. In order to achieve a diverse student body, USF strives to ensure that minorities are well represented among the expected 15,000 applicants for the 4,400 freshman places available in fall 2004.

In addition to the showcase events, the university conducts targeted mailing campaigns and maintains ties with high schools and middle schools that have predominantly high minority-student enrollment. USF has also recently opened the Center for Financial Aid Resources to help demystify the financial aid process for people brought to the campus through ties with civic organizations and churches. By partnering with the New York-based Venture Scholars, an organization that assists high-achieving minority students, USF has access to around 11,000 students for direct-mail campaigns and runs a day-workshop for Florida-based Venture Scholars.

On campus, volunteer organization COLORS, made up of minority students, conducts campus tours for prospective black students.

To ensure these policies are working, Enrollment Planning and Management closely monitors what proportion of successful applicants are minorities.

“We look at the profile of our entering class at least weekly, sometimes daily depending on the time of year when we’re getting lots of applications,” said Doug Hartnagel, associate vice president of Enrollment Planning and Management. “We want to make sure our students of color are continuing to be well represented in the number who we are admitting. We need to be sure that our academic profile is looking how we want it to.”

Figures produced by the State University System show that USF is more successful at attracting minority students than most other universities in the state. Numerically, more blacks, 722 total, enrolled at USF in the summer and fall of 2003 than any other university in Florida except for the historically black FAMU. The 722students represent an increase of 13.5 percent since 2001. Over the same period, the number of Hispanic students enrolling has also increased. The 659 Hispanic students who enrolled in the summer and fall of 2003 accounted for 12.3 percent of USF’s entering class.

USF’s ability to graduate minority students, however, is less impressive. For black, first-time-in-college enrolling in 1998-99, only 13.37 percent had graduated within four years, a percentage that places USF next to bottom compared with other Florida universities. For the same period, only 12.54 percent of Hispanics first-time-in-college students had obtained their diplomas.

The six-year graduation rates, which more and more universities maintain are fairer benchmark, for evaluating success, also reflect unfavorably on USF. Only the University of West Florida has a lower rate than USF’s 38.04 percent Hispanic first-time-in-college graduation rate for students enrolling in 1996-97. Data for the same period shows a black first-time-in-college graduation rate of 38.38 percent, the fourth lowest in the state.

Against institutions that USF considers peer universities it is a similar story. The University of South Carolina’s 4- and 6-year first-time-in-college graduation rates for black students is 21.8 percent and 53.9 percent, respectively. USC’s first-time-in-college graduation rates for Hispanic students, 29.2 percent and 58.3 percent, respectively, also exceed USF’s.

Harold Nixon, vice president for Student Affairs, said he could not comment on figures without more time to look into them, but that the whole university has input about how successfully USF retains students.

“Retention is everybody’s responsibility,” said Nixon. “Retention and recruitment is how well our facilities look, how well the grounds look, how well our instructors communicate with the students.”

For Esque Dollar, president of the USF Black Student Union, non-retention of students stems from the university’s failure to create an environment that is a home for minority students.

“The university has some things that they’re doing to attract underrepresented students to USF. I tip my hat for the things that they are doing, but I don’t think the university is doing what they could to enhance our love for the school and make us want to stay here,” Dollar said. “It goes double when it comes to recruiting minority staff and keeping them here. When we need somebody to talk to, who are you going to call? More then likely you (are) going to call somebody that you think ideally can ‘relate to you’.”

Dollar said the bonus to make campus a welcoming environment belongs as much to Student Government as to the administration. However, Dollar said the university fails to connect with its students and he would like to see administrators make more use of media such as Channel 6 and WBUL to reach out to students.

“You come to Showcase, you come to Fantastic Friday and orientation and you meet all these wonderful people and you expect (a lot),” Dollar said. “(After enrollment) it’s kind of like, ‘Now we turn you over to Student Government to tend to your needs.’ But if you think about it, that’s why the student organizations are created, because there is no support, because no one is speaking up for us, because there is no place for us to go. So, if you look at it from that aspect, then you could say that maybe there are some things that the university is not doing.”

The university’s efforts to ensure that minority students are successful at USF do not end once students are enrolled. Although not tailored exclusively for minorities, USF runs two pre-freshman programs to assist students in acclimatizing to college life.

The six-week Freshman Summer Institute program was developed for students who want to ease their way into their college career and is also recommended to students whose admission was considered borderline. Participants take courses in English, math, learning skills and career development workshops. In addition to satisfying the summer credit requirement, the program provides students with counselors who stay with them throughout their freshman year. Of the 207 students who took the program in 2003, 201 returned for the fall with only one further loss in spring 2004, according to Hartnagel. USF is increasing the number of places in the program to 300 for 2004.

Also scheduled each summer is the introductory six-week element of the Student Support Services program, which is designed to provide an opportunity for students to attend university who may not otherwise be able to attend college, typically first generation college attendees or students from low-income families. According to Reba Garth, director of Student Support Services, minority students make up approximately 90 percent of participants. The program, which is federally funded, also receives state dollars allocated by Wilma Henry, associate vice president of Student Life and Wellness, from the Student Affairs’ budget. SSS boasts a freshman to sophomore retention rate of 99 percent.

“Regardless of economic background, you can succeed,” said Garth. “We provide the necessary resources for them to succeed. We build a lot of self-esteem and college survival skills. We totally expose them to the university.”

Once enrolled in the fall, participating students are subject to “intrusive counseling to ensure their success,” Garth said.

The program, which admits 100 freshmen each summer, typically serves 220 students annually. At an awards reception held Thursday, more than $167,000 was presented in scholarships to SSS participants. The program is highly regarded by many, such as Small and Dollar, who have come through it themselves.

“When you look at retention rates, those alternate admittance programs, such as Student Support Services, which is the one I came through, their graduation rates are superb,” said Dollar. “Because the majority of those students in those programs are minorities, it almost skews the number of the retention and graduation rates for the total university.”

Beyond a student’s first two years, programs such as Project Thrust provide academic support in the form of tutoring and mentoring for all students.

Whatever the success of USF’s minority-orientated programs, for one high school teacher, the efforts of 2004 are a pleasant contrast to his recollection of joining USF.

Willie Lawson, a mathematics teacher from Durant High School in Plant City said when he graduated from high school in 1978, no one from USF even came to his school. Lawson, who brought seven Durant students to “Showcase USF,” said he is pleased USF is reaching out into its community.

“I still think USF is learning. It is shaping in to what it could be,” Lawson said. “To that extent it’s appreciated, but more needs to be done. I’m confident more will be done.”