Posted on Sun, Dec. 13, 2009

10 years after its implementation, One Florida defies its critics

BY SHANNON COLAVECCHIO

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

A decade after Gov. Jeb Bush announced his controversial plan to end race-based university admissions, the number of minority students statewide has risen, according to a Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times review of enrollment figures.

``That certainly flies in the face of those who were predicting Armageddon all those years ago,'' said universities chancellor Frank Brogan. He was Bush's lieutenant governor when he launched One Florida, a plan that sparked marches and sit-ins in the Capitol and across the state.

The increasing diversity of Florida's 11 public universities has been fueled mostly by Hispanic enrollment -- from 13.8 percent to 18 percent statewide -- which reflects in part the changing demographics of the Sunshine State.

Black enrollment offers a mixed picture: a statewide dip, from 14 percent to 13.6 percent, with increases at some universities, decreases at others. For example, the University of South Florida in Tampa went from 9.2 percent to 11.5 percent while Florida International University in Miami dropped from 14.6 percent to 12.4 percent.

``I'm of mixed opinion as to whether or not it's ultimately had a negative impact on diversity,'' USF admissions director Bob Spatig said of eliminating race-based admissions. ``It certainly hasn't on the growing Hispanic population. . . . But I think in some ways we're all stretching as much as we can to make sure it doesn't impact our African-American numbers.''

College admissions officials agree, though, that One Florida better focused their attention on diversity and alternative methods to recruit minorities. They now look at factors like geography, family college history, and socioeconomics. They reach out to first-generation students through scholarships and have closer ties with schools in low-income, urban areas.

``I think for the most part, universities stepped up,'' said John Barnhill, longtime director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Jamel Langley could have gone to Florida A&M, the state's historically black university where his father is a professor. But instead Langley, who is black, chose the University of Florida.

``I knew there wouldn't be as many minorities here at UF, but I love that when I walk around, I see people I've never seen before,'' Langley said. ``College is the chance you get to see the world from different views.''

STARTED IN 1999

Bush announced the admissions changes eliminating race as a factor in November 1999.

One Florida set off a firestorm of opposition. Two of One Florida's most outspoken critics, lawmakers Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill, staged a sit-in for 25 hours until Bush agreed to slow down implementation of the admissions changes. Three weeks later, 1,000 students marched into the Capitol to give Bush their critique of One Florida.

Bush and four Florida A&M students met and came up with this: Race was still out as a factor, but the admissions changes' effect on diversity would be regularly reviewed.

``The system as it currently exists in Florida is far from perfect, but the broader discussion of removing obstacles and creating access to higher education for Florida's children and their families happened as a result of public input,'' said Meek, now a U.S. representative, D-Miami, in a statement this week.

``It's always nice to have your ideas validated,'' Bush said during a recent interview about the increase in minority enrollment. ``But the important thing is that students of all backgrounds are getting an opportunity, and the students are stronger than ever.''

In the years since One Florida took effect, colleges have carefully monitored their minority enrollment numbers. Some universities show more dramatic gains, the result of varying recruiting efforts and geographic realities.

MORE HISPANICS

FIU saw Hispanic enrollment grow from 50.9 to nearly 60 percent -- not surprising given its location in heavily Hispanic South Florida. USF likewise saw Hispanics increase from 8.8 percent to 12.6 percent.

``One Florida allowed us to continue having targeted recruitment,'' Spatig said. ``What's restricted is the ability to use it in the admissions decision. But we can still do a recruitment program that's targeted at African Americans.''

So USF recruits from some rural high schools where the students are mostly white and the first to attend college. But it also recruits from more than 100 high schools where the students are mostly Hispanic and black and low-income.

Spatig and his team look for students from D- and F-rated schools who outperform their peers in test scores, GPA and extracurricular activities. Some 750 students benefit from three USF programs that offer intense academic advising for first-generation students, most of whom are minorities.

Juan Soltero, a native of Puerto Rico, is the first Hispanic student body president at USF. His vice president? A Brazilian.

``It's something we're very proud of,'' said Soltero, 21, whose family lives in Brandon. ``Our library, our student union, are places where you really see the diversity.

The ``greatest challenge'' remains recruiting black students -- particularly black males, said FSU's Barnhill.

The university has the highest graduation rate for black students in the country and, long before One Florida, was a leader in recruiting minority students. The end of race-based admissions didn't make that easier. FSU's black enrollment dropped over the past decade.

``There are so few of those students entering the pipeline and ready for college to begin with, and the competition for those students is enormous,'' Barnhill said.

Hill said Florida's elimination of race-based admissions made it easier for Ivy League schools to lure away the brightest minorities with a free college education.

``We can't use race in the equation, but the Princetons and the Harvards can,'' said Hill, D-Jacksonville. ``So instead of us just going out to find the best and brightest in minority high schools, we need to make sure all of our students are ready for college.''

Some university officials wonder what colleges would look like today if race-based admissions remained in effect.

``We have worked hard to improve the diversity, and we have done a good job keeping our heads above water,'' said UF provost Joe Glover. ``But you could also ask, would we have improved even more had the policy not been imposed?''

FAU MAKES GAINS

Florida Atlantic University was one school that saw dramatic gains in both Hispanics and blacks.

Brogan, who served as FAU's president for more than six years before taking the chancellor job in September, says it reflects efforts at establishing relationships with students as early as middle school, as well as summer education courses and financial assistance.

``Minority enrollment is not something you can just do from time to time,'' said Brogan. ``It takes constant care and attention.''

For Bush, the next measure of Florida higher education's success will be evident in the number of caps and gowns handed out to minorities.

``Getting in is great, but that doesn't have a life-altering impact like graduating and having a degree does,'' Bush said.

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com