As campuses reopen, institutions are paying close attention to the demographic makeup of the student body, going beyond enrollment numbers.
Offering the underserved a chance at a four-year college degree or an opportunity to build a trade skill has become imperative. From Monroe Community College and St. John Fisher University to Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Rochester, the focus on including students from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives is prevalent.
“We know going to college is a critical path forward,” says Ian Mortimer, vice president of enrollment management and associate provost at RIT. “Students who go to RIT have the potential to leapfrog generational economic status. But in that we have our success stories and the places we weren’t able to succeed. We always have to ask, how well are we actually aiding those students?”
Following two consecutive years of record enrollments, RIT received more than 23,000 applications for this fall, up nearly 10 percent from last year, officials say. Applications from African American, Latino American, and Native American students were up 18.5 percent overall compared with last year. The university also got more applications from first-generation students. Last week, learners from all over the world–3,300 first-year and transfer students–arrived at RIT’s Henrietta campus.
The approximately 1,500 incoming students at UR’s school of Arts, Sciences and Engineering includes the largest representation of U.S. first-generation college students and students of color in the university’s history.
“We aim to cultivate a diverse community along multiple dimensions, including their race/ethnicity, gender, geography, socioeconomic status, academic, and co-curricular interests, because every student’s education is enhanced by engagement with others who bring a broad set of experiences and perspectives,” says Robert Alexander, UR dean of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management.
Nationwide, McKinsey & Co. estimates that by 2036, more than 50 percent of U.S. high school graduates will be people of color. While institutions are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, progress is slow, McKinsey’s July report says.
“There’s a certain level of responsibility in focusing on first-year enrollment numbers,” Mortimer says. “Yes, it’s important to get underrepresented populations in the door, but it’s hardly the finish line we’re looking for.”
In terms of ethnicity, Monroe Community College has the largest proportion of students from underrepresented minorities, which includes Hispanic/Latino, Black, American Indian, Native Hawaiian or multiracial categories. (Veterans and single parent students at MCC are also identified as other underrepresented groups.) From 2016 to 2021, almost a third of the study body fell into the URM category. The college believes this trend will continue to be true.
“One thing that our data is telling us, is that within the next four to five years, MCC will become a majority minority-serving institution,” MCC President DeAnna Burt-Nanna says. “About one to two years after that, we will proudly hold the distinction of being a Hispanic-serving institution and that is a reflection of demographic changes in our region, our state, as well as the nation.”
One of the important factors in helping serve MCC students is the SUNY Guided Pathways program. In its third year, the program is a strategy to implement equitable academic and career pathways for all students, particularly those at community colleges. Currently, 18 community colleges, including MCC, which was in the first cohort of schools, are part of the program. It accounts for more than 155,000 students or 78 percent of all community college enrollment.
Similarly, the recently opened Finger Lakes Workforce Development Center, housed on MCC’s Downtown Campus, serves as support for students pursuing entry into a career. The center offers job training, particularly in technology-oriented fields, and gives students hands-on experience to practice and eventually launch their careers. Over the next three years, MCC estimates 2,500 individuals will be trained at the center.
RIT Certified is another workforce development program designed to connect students with employers in fields such as cybersecurity, clinical health care, or engineering. Moritmer sees it as another way to help students who are looking for an alternate path.
“There’s more than one way to gain economic mobility outside a four-year degree. (RIT Certified) is a way to reduce debt for someone who wants to get right into the workforce,” says Mortimer.
“Particularly coming out of the social activity that’s come out over two years, we felt we needed to change our mindset,” he adds, referring to calls for social justice around Daniel Prude. “The conversations and learning we were experiencing made it clear that there needed to be a reprioritizing (around ethnic and economic diversity at RIT).”
At SUNY Brockport, with ESL Federal Credit Union’s help, the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholars program will offer four-year scholarships to high-potential students from low-income families in Monroe, Orleans, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario and Wayne counties. Roughly 30 students will receive these awards each year. ESL last year gifted $1.07 million to the Brockport Foundation.
The Fisher Urban Scholar Award, which pledges $40,000 per student over the course of four years, is available to any high school student who resides in the city of Rochester and enrolls at Fisher as a first-year student. In 2020, a $1 million gift from the C. Anthony and Michele Davidson Foundation endowed a scholarship offering financial assistance to a new generation of Fisher undergraduates.
A retired Tyco executive, Davidson came to Rochester from Jamaica as a teen. Scholarships helped him attend college. Now, his family foundation has committed to supporting Black and Latinx graduates from Rochester high schools. The foundation offers assistance to four Fisher students each year through the Davidson Education Opportunity Bridge Scholarship Fund.
More recently, St. John Fisher University’s Wegmans School of Nursing received $1.1 million to boost the pipeline of diverse nurses. The funds, spread over three years, come from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Nursing Workforce Diversity Program. It marks the fifth year of funding for the university’s Fisher Improves Nursing through Diversity program, and surpasses $5 million received since 2016.
“The word diversity includes everything about a person, their life experiences, ages, gender, geography,” says Stacy Ledermann, director of freshman admissions at St. John Fisher University. “In order to be ready for a diverse and global workforce, we want students to know how to work collaboratively with all sorts of different backgrounds.”
Fisher expects more than 650 students, its largest incoming class, to join its community in September. It claims it is the university’s most diverse class in history.
The COVID-19 factor
Though colleges and universities are known for being places that include various perspectives, the McKinsey & Co. report suggests they have been reflections of existing racial and socioeconomic inequities across society. The COVID-19 pandemic did not help.
“Most underrepresented (high school) students, through no fault of their own, are not at the same level as someone who came from Pittsford, particularly in STEM fields,” Mortimer notes. “We realize there is some middle learning that has to happen. If we don’t address it, then it can compound.”
A Brookings Institution report found that college entry declined most in colleges serving large proportions of people of color after the pandemic. The report found a 16 percent decline in immediate transitions to two-year colleges and a 6 percent decline in transition to four-year colleges.
So far, Rochester institutions seem to have followed the national trend. On average, enrollment of all students decreased from 2020 to 2021, except at UR and RIT. When examining URM students in that same time period, the number fell by an average of 13 percent across all Rochester-area colleges. RIT was the only college to have an increase of URM students (5 percent) during that period.
“There are an increasing number of high school students who are not consumers of higher education,” says Mortimer.
A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse supports his view. The December 2021 report, which studied college enrollment in 2020 for 8,400 high schools nationwide, found rates at which students immediately enrolled in college fell to unprecedented levels. Disproportionately large drops were noted among high-poverty or low-income high schools. In fall 2020, higher-income high school graduates were still far more likely to enroll in college immediately than those from low-income schools (65 percent and 49 percent, respectively), the report states.
To win such students back, Mortimer believes ”schools need to do more to be cost effective and give opportunity for upward mobility.”
Part of winning them back could also be a school’s flexibility. At St. John Fisher University, Ledermann credits a creative and fast-acting recruitment department.
“Zoom wasn’t a part of our strategic plan prior to this, but we find there still is a place for it in our recruitment efforts now,” she says, citing virtual tours as a key example.
With Covid, visits on Fisher’s campus had to be flexed, causing tour group sizes to decrease and greater support for transporting families.
MCC actually saw an opportunity when Covid forced classes online. While some students struggled with hybrid and remote learning, “for others, it was a rescue lifeline for them, because they were able to adjust to their children being in the household all the time. They could continue their career progression without disruption because we were agile and responsive,” says Burt-Nanna.
“The faculty were able to see more transparently the living conditions of our students,” she adds. “Their hearts have always tended toward our students and perhaps now all the more. There’s a sense of urgency that Covid provided all of us, and on behalf of our students and on behalf of our communities.”
More work to be done
According to McKinsey’s analysts, there is work to be done. From 2013 to 2020, only 7 percent of four-year institutions progressed in racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic representation among students.
While all Rochester schools are optimistic about their initiatives, the data on long-term success is only starting to trickle in. Across all SUNY schools, the rate of students who graduate with a bachelor degree in four years is just over 50 percent. RIT’s graduation rate currently stands at 68 percent, or two in three students.
Institutions are digging deeper as well. At MCC, administrators are studying the intent of their students, to better serve people who want a degree or career and those who are just taking a few classes. RIT’s incoming class wrote dreams on paper airplanes at its new student convocation.
Graduation rates are just part of the story, Mortimer says. Studying how students perform after they leave school is just as important.
“The goal is 100 percent employment of course, but it’s also a 100 percent fair salary too, and we know that’s an issue when it comes to underrepresented minorities in the workforce,” Mortimer says.
RIT is also examining salary data from its co-op system in order to compare these metrics.
“The populations of students to enter into high wage fields like STEM, what does that demographic look like at MCC? We do know that we have that data. And how well are their earnings looking in comparison to students that are not from a minority population? We know that as well,” says Burt-Nanna. “The commitment then becomes then what do we do about that disparity to close those gaps? That’s the work that we’re committing to.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.