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The State Of Race And Diversity On Kentucky Campuses

School desks
Thomas Galvez
School desks

The world of college admissions was abuzz this week with talk of a federal pivot on affirmative action.

The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice is considering investigating colleges and universities that favor minority groups that have traditionally been discriminated against in enrollment decisions.

Here in Kentucky, it’s unlikely that any schools will come under federal scrutiny. None of the public universities have a formal affirmative action policy in place. But many are actively trying to recruit minority students in the face of budget cuts and declining enrollments across the board.

When it comes to racial demographics, Kentucky’s higher education system reflects the diversity of the commonwealth fairly closely. Kentucky is 88 percent white, while the colleges and universities as a whole are 78 percent white.

Among the state's largest schools, the University of Louisville has the highest proportion of black students. But the city of Louisville is far more diverse than the rest of the state and has a much higher percentage of blacks (22.9 percent) than the school (11.2 percent) does.

U of L’s incoming freshman class will be its most diverse ever, said Director of Admissions Jenny Sawyer. “We can’t take credit for that in some ways, because that is indicative of [Kentucky’s] changing demographics.” For example, Sawyer’s office is planning for a quickly growing Latino population.

To encourage applicants from a range of backgrounds, U of L offers scholarships and does community outreach. Students are invited to share their race, gender, sexual orientation and financial information to help the university support them on campus. But once your application is in the pile, all of that becomes irrelevant, Sawyer said.

Sawyer says she’s happy with the progress the university has made on increasing diversity on campus, but feels there is always more to do. But not everyone on campus is happy with efforts to attract minority students with scholarships and programming.

“When we start putting people into groups and giving them special favors based on that group, when there is such a push for diversity based on certain appearances, we have to ask if that makes other students feel less included,” said Ben Foster, a professor of accountancy.

Last year, Foster wrote a case study that criticized affirmative action in U of L’s hiring practices for the National Association of Scholars, a group that advocates for academic freedom.

Opponents of affirmative action in college admissions say it discriminates against whites and Asian-Americans, who are over-represented in higher education, by prioritizing the enrollment of blacks and Hispanics.

For many Kentucky schools, diversity outreach also helps balance the budget.

The entire state university system saw a 10 percent decline in enrollment over the last five years. Most of that decline came from two-year public schools, which lost 26 percent of their enrollment in that period.

To combat declining enrollment and the financial strain of state budget cuts, many Kentucky schools are hoping the commonwealth's growing diversity will mean growing applicant pools.

They may be right: the Council on Post-Secondary Education found that "underrepresented minorities" are continuing to enroll at nearly the same rate as they did five years ago. Their peers -- whites and Asians -- saw a combined decline of nearly 12 percent in the same time frame.

This story has been updated to reflect the University of Louisville's diversity ranking among the state's largest schools. 

Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at  eklibanoff@kycir.org and (502) 814.6544.

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