Two Michigan private colleges excel at boosting minority enrollment

Elaine Mallon
Special to The Detroit News

When Chicago native Alex Butler applied to colleges three years ago during his senior year of high school, he said he didn’t have a lofty list of expectations. 

A school’s athletic department, much less the diversity of its student body, was not a deciding factor for Butler, a junior majoring in ethnic studies and English. As a first-generation African American college student, he said only one factor would decide where he received his degree: the cost. 

At Albion College, federal aid and scholarships provided by the college covered over 80% of his tuition and room and board. While Butler said he had hoped to attend a historically Black university or college, he couldn’t turn down Albion's scholarships.

“The first time I got here, I was moving into the dorms,” Butler said. “My list ended up going out of the window. They gave me the best amount of money, so I ended up going there.” 

Albion College says it has more than doubled its minority enrollment in the past seven years.

Butler’s enrollment is one example of Albion's success in increasing its minority enrollment. Kalamazoo College has had similar success.

Of the 41 private colleges in Michigan, Kalamazoo and Albion have been noted as leaders in their efforts to improve the diversity of their campus, according to Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities.

Albion, located about 13 miles east of Marshall in southern Michigan, has more than doubled its enrollment of people of color in the past seven years.

For the 2013-2014 school year, 18% of students identified as a person of color. During, 2019-2020, 41% of students identified as a minority.

The incoming fall 2020 class consisted of 48% students of color. 

The private college has been working to create a more inclusive environment for minority students both with financial aid and college programs, said Kelly Finn, the chief of staff to Albion’s president. Albion College offers free tuition for students below a certain family income threshold.

“One of our core values is belonging,” Finn said. “We are committed to building a campus where every student feels at home. To do that, we need to go beyond diversity, equity and inclusion to true belonging.”

Kalamazoo College is also diligently working to increase its minority student population, said Robert LeFevre, president of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities.

With the shift in racial demographics, Kalamazoo recognized many minorities were coming of college age and focused heavily on recruiting them. The school focused its recruitment efforts in densely minority-populated areas such as Southern California and Texas.

In 2011, 19.8% percent of enrolled students at Kalamazoo identified with a racial minority. In 2020, the number was 35.7%.

Improving minority enrollment has been an objective for the college for the past 14 years, said Sarah Westfall, Kalamazoo’s vice president of student development and dean of students. 

“We really wanted to get a student body that looked more like the world that we live in instead of a world that has passed,” Westfall said. 

Improving minority presence is just one piece of the college's strategy for diversifying a campus. 

“We don’t have a goal, for example, of being X% certain kinds of folks and Y% certain kinds of others,” Westfall said. 

“We don’t define diversity only as a race or ethnicity. There is socio-economic diversity, religious diversity and cultural diversity, and we care equally about all of those,” she said.

While Kalamazoo College has significantly improved its minority student enrollment, the school has struggled with retaining them. 

Kalamazoo College has worked on improving its minority enrollment to about 36% of the student body.

In 2012, its minority enrollment shot up to 28.74%, but in 2013 fell to 23.4%. A similar trend happened in 2014 with minority enrollment at 32.8% but falling to 27.2% the following year.

The ACT and SAT tests are optional for applicants to Kalamazoo College. 

A key is for colleges to create an environment where minority students feel comfortable, Butler said. 

As treasurer for the Black Student Alliance, Butler said he’s found his place on campus. 

“I did expect there to be like a larger Black community when I first got here, but I was wrong,” he said. “It’s grown over time.”

Recruiting is only half the battle, and Finn and Westfall said their colleges constantly work to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment.

Last summer, Albion launched “Blueprint for Belonging,” which serves as an audit for evaluating the best steps for improving students’ sense of inclusion. 

In addition, last fall the college received a grant of more than $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education/TRIO Student Support Services to assist students from low-income families, first generation students and those with disabilities. 

Kalamazoo College hosts peer ed groups at its Intercultural Student Center, which was established five years ago. 

The groups include Sister Circle, established to give women of color an opportunity to talk about their shared experiences, and Sakuma, an organization for underrepresented students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Alma College is also touting its efforts to improve minority enrollment. In the past 10 years, Alma has increased minority enrollment by 13%, spokesman Tim Rath said. 

The college has focused much of its efforts in reaching out to potential students in Detroit.

 As a participant in the Detroit Future Program, Alma offers full tuition and room board scholarships to students who live or attend high school in Detroit. The students must come from a family with an annual household income below $65,000. 

“We are committed to recognizing and removing barriers to success and providing equitable access to opportunities through education and advocacy,” Rath said. 

Elaine Mallon writes for the Capital News Service.