Enrolling a new generation Education: As support for affirmative action wanes, officials consider a neutral policy that targets students whose parents didn't attend college.

July 29, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

As support flags for considering race in college admissions, some educators are gingerly weighing a racially neutral alternative: giving a boost to the prospects of students whose parents did not attend college.

Campus officials are not embracing the notion as a single-shot replacement for affirmative action, and they are quick to say they are not abandoning the notion of racial diversity at their campuses. But the "first generation" approach -- the mirror image to the advantage given by many schools to the children of alumni -- is gaining currency, college administrators say.

"People are discussing it within the profession," said Linda Clement, director of admissions at the University of Maryland College Park. "Race was the convenient way to categorize people easily. [First-generation] presents a different kind of diversity."

Leon Bennett, the general counsel of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says the policy represents a possible response to a recent federal court ruling affecting Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas that largely bars affirmative action in university admissions for underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities. The state board that oversees higher education in Texas is also mulling the idea.

The battle over affirmative action is being fought nationally. Regents of the University of California system voted a year ago to overturn racial preferences, and the state attorneys general of Colorado and Georgia recently said they will not defend state schools in lawsuits alleging "reverse discrimination" because of racial affirmative action policies in admissions.

Many universities track students whose parents do not have college degrees under a federal subsidy program. Now, as some college officials offer dire predictions for the racial composition of their student bodies if affirmative action is abandoned, others say the "first generation" approach offers hope for maintaining diversity. The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Georgia, for example, use it as one of many factors, including race, that they consider in admitting students.

Those considering the policy could look to St. Mary's College of Maryland, where administrators' decade-old emphasis on first-generation students has yielded classes with diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In attempting to revive St. Mary's as a liberal arts school in the early 1980s, then-President Edward T. Lewis hammered on the importance of "first generation" students to try to make sure that the school did not become a public version of more elitist private campuses.

For freshmen entering this fall, 89 students of a class of 320 -- about 28 percent -- are the children of parents who did not graduate from college, according to preliminary figures. Of those, about 18 percent, or 16 students, are black. That may not sound like a big number, but those black first-generation students make up almost half of all black freshmen: 16 of 36, or 44 percent.

"It does give you a diverse class. It's not only an ethnic diversity -- it's a diversity of style and thought," said James Antonio, dean of admissions at St. Mary's.

Lewis and others credit the first-generation approach with helping to maintain a student body with African-American enrollments that hover around 12 percent. That's about the same level as the University of Maryland College Park, which is considered one of the more successful traditionally white research universities in recruiting black students.

"It's never going to be a substitute for ethnicity. It just won't be. But it will be helpful," said Robert J. Massa, Hopkins' dean for undergraduate enrollment management.

In addition, Massa said, "It would achieve a diversity of background. Those students would bring to a campus environment a different perspective on life than students who come from a family with an expectation of the value of education."

A series of studies show that people without college degrees are far more likely to earn significantly less money than those who have bachelor's degrees or more. At St. Mary's, approximately 30 percent of "first generation" freshmen come from families in the lowest income brackets. That's a somewhat higher percentage than the student body at large, Antonio said.

The "first generation" designation serves to some extent as a stand-in for a student's class, something that makes some civil rights advocates edgy. A disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics would benefit under the policy. But middle-class minorities -- students whose parents did attend college and expect them to enroll as well -- are better prepared than their lower-income peers for college and more likely to complete their degrees, said Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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