Flint colleges focus on educating prospects on water

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Flint — As college recruitment season gets underway, Flint’s higher education institutions are stepping up efforts to let prospective students know the water on campus is safe.

Not all areas of Flint have been affected by elevated lead levels in the water — a message university officials say is not getting out. As they recruit, college officials are publicizing steps they have taken to address problems and stressing that lead has minimally affected their drinking water — or, in some cases, not at all.

The University of Michigan-Flint — the community’s flagship college — found elevated lead levels in a few areas, installed filters across campus and has conducted regular testing showing nondetectable levels of lead. Meanwhile, Kettering University’s campus has not been affected by lead at all.

Regardless, UM-Flint experienced a slight decrease in winter enrollment and recently sent 90,000 mailings and 75,000 emails to current and prospective students outlining steps it has taken to assure campus water safety.

Unsafe lead amounts found in hundreds of schools’ water

“It’s a delicate conversation because we don’t want to minimize what is going on in Flint and the tragedy of people having consumed water with lead in it,” said UM-Flint Chancellor Susan Borego. “At the same token, we are recruiting students. We want to assure them, and tell them what we have done on campus to provide safe drinking water.”

The message comes during the height of the traditional college recruiting season. Most prospective students will decide by May which school they will attend this fall.

It’s important to reach potential students since most live outside Flint — where there is some confusion about water safety in the community of 100,000 people, Borrego said.

Currently, applications are up at UM-Flint, which has 8,000 students. But Borrego said enrollment dipped 6 percent in 2015-16, from 8,470 in the fall to 7,927 in the winter. Most were undergraduates.

“It’s hard to say why,” the chancellor said. “We think it could be related to water. ... We know there is still a great deal of national and regional publicity that sometimes isn’t as accurate as it could be.”

Other higher education institutions in Flint, such as Kettering University and Mott Community College, also are working to assure prospective students that water is safe on campus.

At Kettering, officials say they are telling potential students they have been testing water for years and that the lead contamination did not affect the campus, 1.5 miles west of downtown Flint.

Kip Darcy, vice president of marketing, communications and enrollment, said the university created web resources, sent out a “white paper” and water data sheet, and conducted information sessions led by university President Robert McMahan. Meanwhile, Darcy said enrollment is up at the private university, which has 2,079 students.

“We don’t want to mitigate the importance of the crisis,” Darcy said.

Nation’s water systems rife with lead issues

In a recent letter, McMahan wrote that a lot of misinformation about the water supply in Flint is being reported as fact, and other important information is not being reported.

“The levels of lead found in some areas of Flint are gravely upsetting, but I want again to stress that the problem of lead contamination in public and private drinking water supplies is not present in all of Flint,” McMahan wrote.

“Unfortunately, this distinction has been absent from much of the reporting on this subject in the media. Reports often imply that the water was tainted at the source (i.e. the Flint River), or that contamination of the water is uniform across the entire distribution system and that every house and business has been equally affected.”

The Flint River water supply was not treated with corrosion controls, causing lead to leach from pipes in parts of Flint. Officials waited for months to acknowledge the problem and address it, sparking a public outcry.

While Flint has since gone back to the Detroit water system and lead levels are coming down, officials say the levels are still not within an acceptable range.

When the city issued a boil water advisory in fall 2014, UM-Flint began testing its water and has since instituted regular, independent testing, officials said.

At the beginning of 2016, the school found elevated lead levels in the Northband Center. It also found elevated levels in a water fountain in the Central Energy Plant and a kitchen sink in the library break room. All were addressed quickly, officials said.

Additionally, UM-Flint spent $300,000 to install water filters on fountains, faucets, water refill stations and food prep sinks. “Our latest water tests show that our filters continue to work,” said a recent mailing to students. “Our campus water is safe.”

“UM-Flint faculty, staff and students have joined forces to address the urgent water crisis in Flint,” the mailer continued. “In 2014, long before the water crisis hit the front pages, we began taking bold measures to ensure the safety of our campus water — and continue to do so.”

The message appears to have reached Alicia Hinojosa, who toured the UM-Flint campus with two student guides on a rainy morning last week. The two students showed Hinojosa where to file her application and get help with financial aid, and touted the safe campus, the personalized attention in the small classes and instruction from professors, not graduate students.

The only hint of Flint’s water crisis came when the tour passed the front desk of a residential hall and one of the student guides mentioned that bottled water was given out for free. But that didn’t matter to Hinojosa, a Fenton High School junior, since she had already talked with her cousin, who attends UM-Flint.

“She said UM-Flint really didn’t have a problem with the water,” said Hinojosa, 17. “They have filters in the dorm. I haven’t even thought about it because I know it’s OK.”