Makeup of student body still falls short of advocates’ 1969 goal

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • January 22, 2015

In 1969, Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, or EBONI, petitioned the college to, among other things, change the way the college handled the admissions for people of color.

After months of debate, the administration agreed to accept 30 black students in the fall 1969 semester; provide five full-tuition scholarships for black students in 1969 and 10 in 1970; and hire a black recruiter for prospective students.

But the echoes of the inequities that prompted EBONI’s proposals still ring in the college halls today. 

In in 2012—the latest year for which Emerson published freshman class demographics—only 3 percent of new students reported their race as black, or roughly 26 of the 863 total. In that class, 4 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent “multiracial,” and 70 percent white. International students, and those who didn’t specify their race or ethnicity, make up the other 7 percent. There were no Native American freshmen that year.

The proportion of students who are admitted to Emerson and chose to enroll is also lower among nonwhite students than white students, according to Ruthanne Madsen, interim vice president of enrollment and associate vice president of student financial services.

In the fall 2014 semester, 21 percent of the white students who were admitted to Emerson ended up enrolling, she said. But only about 16 percent of non-white students who were admitted chose to enroll.

This data is reported in accordance with the standards of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which colleges are required to submit to the U.S. Department of Education. The data allows federal policymakers to analyze trends in higher education, but Emerson uses the information to create diversity in incoming classes, Madsen said.

Madsen said that it is no longer accepted practice for colleges to give funding to students based on race, but Emerson offers funding for underserved or underrepresented populations — which includes students who do not have access to the same resources as others — through various resources in the financial aid and scholarship process.

Currently, there are 10 scholarships designated for what Emerson calls “underserved” populations. Some of these scholarships cover tuition, while one or two are full-ride scholarships. The college offers these scholarships to the students who show the most promise in their applications, according to Madsen.

Financial aid is considered based on individual students’ need according to information shown in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile, according to Madsen.

“It’s not based on race, it’s based on your demonstrated need,” said Madsen. “When Emerson admits students, they look at just holistic application, and they don’t look at ability to pay. The financial aid office then works with that particular student.”

According to the American Psychological Association, minorities are more likely than caucasians to live in poverty, to receive high-cost mortgages, and have higher unemployment rates. Additionally, the APA found that students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often don’t have access to adequate teaching styles, information, learning communities, or resources.

Emerson does not consider socioeconomic status when deciding on admission, according to Madsen. Instead, she said the college supports programs that help underserved populations be exposed to communications and arts.

Students in the communication studies capstone programs worked with underprivileged teens from the Bird Street Community Center of Dorchester to teach the teens how to market themselves to colleges and to employers. The group created a website that focuses on civic engagement.

Another program is Emerson Pathways, a free, three-year program for Boston public high school students that offers writing and theater tracks, and an additional class about college preparedness. The program requires a nomination by a teacher in one of Emerson’s partner high schools.

Pathways was created by MJ Knoll-Finn, the former vice president for enrollment, who took a job at New York University this fall.

President M. Lee Pelton, who is chairing the search committee for Knoll-Finn’s permanent replacement, said that finding someone with Knoll-Finn’s experience, skills, and commitment to diversity and inclusion is of the utmost importance.

Pelton said a focus on attracting nonwhite students to apply would be a important in a potential vice president for enrollment replacement, since 3,392 fewer nonwhite students applied than white students for the fall 2014 semester.

“We’ll be interested in candidates who show evidence of building and developing retention programs that assures that students are supported fully once they get here,” said Pelton.

The 13-member search committee consists of department chairs, trustees, student representatives, and administration. Pelton said they have hired search consultants, and will work on narrowing it down to a choice by the end of the spring semester.

The echoes of EBONI’s petitions still influence the admissions department. According to Madsen, they strive to enrich the diversity of faculty and staff in the department. The department has a senior assistant director of admission and coordinator of nonwhite recruitment, Christopher Grant. In terms of staff, admissions is one of the most diverse groups on campus, according to Madsen.

“We might not be perfect, but we’re headed in the right direction,” said Madsen, “and we have momentum.”