Outsourcing Affirmative Action: Colleges Look Overseas for Racial Diversity

Aggressive Recruitment

At Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, the percentage of African American students has jumped to 10.9 percent, up from just 6.1 percent percent in 2000, because of aggressive recruitment efforts, according to associate provost and dean of admission Doug Christiansen. The school's total foreign enrollment is only about 2 percent.

Vanderbilt -- which enrolls 6,400 undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students -- brags on its Web site that it is "unapologetically committed to diversity." In what it calls a "holistic" approach to admission, it considers a student's grades, rank, advanced placement course load, extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation and attributes like race and socio-economic background.

Its freshman retention rate is one of the highest in the nation, at just under 96 percent, and 89 percent of its students stay on to graduate. The school's financial aid has also jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent to help pay the way for those who cannot afford.

"We target inner-city school systems in the U.S. and try to help underserved students if they are academically qualified," Christiansen said. "It doesn't matter where you are born and what family you are born into if you challenge yourself, you're curious and you've prepared yourself."

Vanderbilt gets 13,000 applications for 1,600 places in its freshman class and markets to students even in the eighth grade in an effort to capture the brightest black students and get them on a path to college.

"We are not just recruiting. We are helping these students get a degree," Christiansen said. "This is where their lives start to change and alter."

Christiansen, who teaches political science, sees diversity at work in the classroom. "When there are lots of opinions, the dynamic is better than if everyone thinks exactly the same way."

But, he warned, even admissions officers come to the table with biases, and his university consciously discusses them before reviewing student applications.

"If the facts in this study bear out across the country, and we are trying to emulate people who are like ourselves, that is a sound indictment and a sad thing, and we have more work to do," Christiansen said.

But Swain is still troubled that universities do discriminate against black students from lower social classes. As a poor black woman from Virginia, she struggled to make her mark in academia and argues that diversity policies still serve white students better than blacks.

Swain was tenured as a congressional scholar at Princeton University from 1990 to 2000, and said she always felt like an "outsider."

"I encounter social class bias all the time," she said. "I have five degrees, but I didn't change my accent. I could have disguised where I come from, but I felt I should tell the story because it shows that people from my background can rise above circumstances.

"People like me never reach this level," Swain added. "I am not even supposed to be in the room. But God gave me the opportunity to walk the corridors of power so I could really look behind the door."

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