As valedictorian of Carter High School in Dallas, Kirsten Brew was heavily recruited during her senior year to attend several nationally renowned universities.
While the University of Texas, Georgetown University and Washington University in St. Louis showed interest in the prospective business major, Brew chose to enroll at Texas A&M University.
The decision was easy, she said. A&M offered her a full academic ride and recruiters called her home at least twice a month to persuade her to attend the university.
“Every weekend they were trying to get me down here to visit,” Brew said Friday. “When I did come down, I felt like I was part of this campus.”
Brew, who is black, is among several hundred members of A&M’s freshman class who were targeted months ago during an aggressive campaign designed to attract more minority students to the university.
The plan relied on a combination of outreach initiatives and $8 million in newly created socioeconomic scholarships to attract minorities who met academic admission requirements.
Texas A&M President Robert Gates said those efforts are responsible for producing what the university bills as dramatic gains in the number of African-American and Hispanic students in this year’s freshman class. The increases bucked a general decline in minority enrollment dating back to 1996, after the Hopwood court decision led to the end of affirmative action in admissions.
Enrollment among black freshmen jumped 35 percent, increasing by 55 students over last year to 213, according to university statistics. Hispanic freshman enrollment rose 26 percent to 869, an increase of 177 students, A&M officials said.
The two groups long have been considered underrepresented at the university by A&M critics who argue the predominantly white campus should better reflect the state’s population and ethnic diversity.
The increases in those groups were the largest in A&M’s history, said Frank Ashley, a former assistant provost for enrollment who helped lead the university’s recruitment campaign earlier this year.
“In the 18 years that I was at the university, it was the first time there was a unified effort from the top down to increase minority enrollment,” said Ashley, who left in July to become dean of the College of Education at Texas A&M University-Commerce. “All we had to do was change a couple of our approaches.”
Those changes began last December after Gates announced the university would continue making race-neutral admissions decisions while adopting a process that focuses on the individual merits of each applicant.
While Gates found many supporters, critics blasted the decision because a Supreme Court opinion months earlier had cleared the way for public universities to give limited consideration to race.
The merit-based approach toughened the requirements for automatic admission while awarding admission points to those who could explain in an essay how they have overcome hardships in life.
A&M could accomplish more in its diversity efforts through proactive recruitment and outreach efforts than by using race as a factor in admissions, Gates said at the time. The approach would ensure every Aggie was enrolled on merit alone, he said.
A group of A&M administrators soon began to discuss ways to produce immediate results with the new process, said Mark Weichold, dean of undergraduate programs and associate provost for academic service.
The university historically has had difficulty getting African-American and Hispanic students to enroll after they are accepted, Weichold said.
A&M on average enrolls about 63 percent of the students it accepts, Weichold said. The rest choose not to attend for some reason after earning admission.
But yield as a percentage typically is in the low 40s for African-Americans and low 50s for Hispanics, he said. Those yields rose into the high 40s and high 50s, respectively, this year, Weichold said.
“Our emphasis at that point was to do everything and anything we could to cause those minority students who were admitted to enroll,” he said.
Money and outreach
In January, Gates received permission from the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents to direct $8 million to socioeconomic scholarships.
The scholarships were not created specifically for minorities, A&M officials said, but many black and Hispanic students were recipients. The awards were designated for first-generation students, or those who are the first in their families to attend college, Weichold said.
While the need-based scholarships were a successful recruitment tool for minorities, the university predicted they would solve only part of the yield problems, Weichold said.
The other part of the solution for increasing yield was to increase personal contact with prospective minority students in the months after they were admitted to the university.
A&M officials referred to this aspect of their recruitment efforts as “the full-court press,” said Cynthia Gay, associate director of admissions.
“What that involved was getting the entire Aggie community involved in our efforts,” Gay said. “Every college and department on campus knew this was a priority.”
The most notable efforts to increase contact with prospective black and Hispanic students came with the formation of several recruitment centers throughout the state.
Officials established “regional prospective student centers” in Houston, Weslaco, San Antonio, Dallas and Corpus Christi to help strengthen A&M’s relationship with local high schools and communities, Gay said.
The university made a $4 million investment in outreach programs last year, Gay said. Opening the recruitment centers and hiring about 15 new full-time recruiters to staff them were included in the package.
The admissions and financial aid counselors working at the centers travel to high schools beginning in September to speak about A&M to potential students, said Rick Margo, an admissions counselor in the Weslaco center.
Margo said he and four other recruiters in Weslaco cover nearly 50 predominantly Hispanic high schools in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and primarily recruit first-generation students.
“We meet with parents. We meet on the weekends. We meet in their homes. We do what it takes to get them to A&M,” Margo said from Weslaco. “I was at a kid’s home until 9 p.m. the other night.”
Recruiters usually can predict for parents what it will cost to send their son or daughter to A&M, Margo said. Last year, the average student spent $13,000 per year, according to the university.
Based on the income of a student’s parents, advisers can calculate the financial aid a student will receive to attend A&M, Margo said. With the abundance of scholarships and other aid now available, he said, many Hispanic students in his region had that $13,000 lowered to between $1,000 and $5,000.
More than 50 students recruited by his office received four-year academic scholarships to attend A&M, Margo said.
Many Hispanic students who meet with recruiters can be coached to craft an essay that will score them the maximum admissions points by A&M if they are not in the top 10 percent of their class, Margo said. Those in the top 10 percent automatically are admitted under state law.
While recruiters have the most contact with prospective students, A&M also enlisted minorities who previously attended the university to help with their recruitment efforts, Gay said.
More than 400 black and Hispanic former students participated this year in a telephone campaign called Phone-A-Fish.
Gay said the former students received packets of information on minority students who already had been accepted to A&M. Their job was to call each and highlight the selling points of A&M.
Hugh McElroy, who in the late 1960s became the first black football player to start for the Aggies, received information on 10 prospective students in March.
He said he usually started his conversations with students by congratulating them on being accepted to the university and would ask questions about their plans for college.
Some of the students never had intentions of enrolling at A&M, he said. Others did not want to leave home. Still others preferred urban areas to College Station. Four of the 10 students he spoke with chose to attend A&M.
But the most important thing about the experience, he said, was that he made sure he listened to the students and did not just try to persuade them to attend A&M.
“My goal was for them to make the best decision for themselves,” McElroy said. “I wanted to give them reason to come here rather than convincing them to come.”
While the personal contact with recruiters and former students was helpful, the biggest selling point for many future Aggies was a visit to the campus, Gay said.
When black and Hispanic students made the trip to College Station, they typically were brought by recruiters in small groups and given VIP treatment by administrators, Gay said.
Students would tour the campus, visit with officials from their prospective colleges, eat lunch with current students and meet with representatives from the Department of Multicultural Services.
“We called it ‘rolling out the maroon carpet,’” Gay said. “It made a difference.”
Margo said he and 56 prospective students loaded onto a charter bus in Weslaco last April to make the eight-hour drive to College Station and enjoyed such treatment during a campus visit.
The students, who were mostly Hispanic, went to an A&M baseball game — in which A&M rallied in the late innings to win — and spent the night on campus with current students, Margo said.
“On bus ride back, the students couldn’t stop talking about A&M,” he said. “Some didn’t want to leave. Out of the 56 kids I took on that trip, 51 are at A&M now. It was our most successful trip last year.”
Gates said A&M officials decided Friday the university again will devote about $8 million in need-based scholarships to continue the university’s recruitment efforts. He said even he could not have predicted A&M would achieve such dramatic gains in minority enrollment this year.
Important to note, Gates said, is that white students who are first-generation college students also have benefited from the scholarships — not just minorities.
“We felt, after having a good year, we can’t afford to back off,” he said, adding that about $275 million a year in financial assistance is funneled to A&M students. “It seems to me that spending $8 million to reach out to first-generation, lower-income Texans remains consistent with our mission.”