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UM's Schlissel rolls out diversity programs

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan is rolling out an $85 million plan Thursday to increase campus diversity as part of its first major effort to address the issue under the leadership of President Mark Schlissel.

UM recently launched two concerted efforts — Wolverine Pathways and HAIL scholarships — to reach students of color and those from low-income families, respectively, as an initial part of the plan. Both offer full scholarships for four years at UM, valued at $60,000.

The two programs — along with a new multicultural center and a multifaceted plan to be highlighted Thursday during a daylong summit — are part of an overall initiative of strategies and investments over five years to make UM more diverse.

The efforts come after UM was at the center of a decade-long, national debate around affirmative action in higher education involving the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and campus diversity remains low. African-Americans represent 4.9 percent of the 43,651 students on campus.

Additionally, 8 percent of in-state UM students come from families with incomes between $25,001-$50,000, and 9 percent come from families with income of $25,000 or less, according to 2013 data, the latest available.

UM’s strategies also come in the wake of racist fliers that appeared a week ago on campus, spawning student and faculty demonstrations and several denouncements from Schlissel, who made his strongest condemnation Wednesday when he called the fliers an “act of terrorism.”

Diversity was identified as a priority from the beginning for UM’s 14th president, who called it a paramount endeavor when he started his post in 2014.

“We’re a public university, and we are supposed to be serving all of the public, not just a subset of the public whose parents are educated and relatively well-off,” Schlissel said Wednesday.

Rob Sellers, UM’s vice provost of equity, inclusion and academic affairs, added the university is aware of the makeup of the student population and working to evolve.

“We are not where we want to be, but we are working to become more diverse,” said Sellers, who Schlissel named Wednesday as the university’s first chief diversity officer pending Board of Regents’ approval.

The Wolverine Pathways launched in March for seventh- and 10th-grade students who live within the boundaries of the Southfield and Ypsilanti public school districts, with plans to expand to Detroit next year.

The program is a free supplemental education program, held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. It includes English, science and math, opportunities for community service, leadership and internships, cultural events, field trips, visits to UM and college prep workshops. It involves mentorships from UM officials, along with family participation. More than 500 students and parents attended a kickoff in February, but it is unclear how many students are currently involved.

For high school students who successfully complete the program, apply to UM and get accepted, they are guaranteed a four-year tuition scholarships.

“There are communities around the state, particularly urban communities, that suffer from not having outstanding public primary education but there are very talented kids in those communities,” Schlissel said. “We are using Wolverine Pathways to help develop kids and make them college-ready.”

Meanwhile, UM this fall enrolled 263 students from across the state in the HAIL scholarship program, which began to attract high-achieving students from low-income families — defined as those who qualify for the federal Pell Grant, an award based on family income that does not have to be repaid. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 72 percent of Pell Grant recipients’ family income was either $30,000 or less in 2014-15.

Like underrepresented minority students, young people from low-income families are less prevalent on campuses than their wealthier counterparts from well-educated families — and they are rare at the nation’s most elite universities, such as the University of Michigan. Kalamazoo College was the only top university in Michigan identified as one of the nation’s most economically diverse in a 2014 analysis by The New York Times.

UM’s HAIL scholarship program, which includes 259 schools across Michigan, targeted students from low-income families by giving them packages of admissions information, which includes a detailed guide for applying to UM, and mentors to help them through the process.

Many of these students are the first generation in their family to attend college, so the university shepherds them through admissions.

The program is key, Schlissel said, to increase the economic diversity of the student body. As the state has contributed less funding to public universities and tuition has gone up, the university has worked to increase financial aid. But there is a notion that UM is out of reach for some, he added.

“In reality, we provide incredibly generous financial aid, the (actual) cost of attending hasn’t gone up in a decade, but getting the message to the public has been a real challenge,” Schlissel said.

“We’re trying to reach out to lower socioeconomic students who are really talented and reassure them we have committed a full, four-year tuition scholarship if they get accepted and help them apply.”

An in-state UM freshman currently pays $14,402 a year in tuition and fees.

Alexis Barker, a Detroit resident and daughter of a single mother, is among the university’s first class of HAIL scholars.

Barker applied to numerous universities with her 4.2 grade point average. But her top choice was UM, and she is grateful to have received a full scholarship.

“It definitely takes a lot of pressure off of me,” said Barker, who graduated co-valedictorian from Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine in Detroit. “I have more time to focus on the reason I am here, and my mom doesn’t have to worry about it either.”

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com