University’s African-American population in decline

Ashley Ojiemwen, senior of AHS, studying at Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center on Oct. 22, 2014.

By Faraz Mirza

Sundiata Cha-Jua threw his hands up, gesturing to his small office in the African American Studies building.

“You see this place … this is an old house that was built in 1901,” Cha-Jua, associate professor of African American Studies, said. “They’ve been talking about a new space for African American Studies — a building, not a house — for at least more than a decade, and there’s been very little movement in that regard.”

Cha-Jua said the building seems to reflect a sentiment many African-Americans have on campus — that African-American-related issues aren’t a priority to the University. 

Over the last decade, the African-American population on campus has faced a heavy decrease.

Only 356 African-American freshmen enrolled in the fall semester, of the 945 that were accepted into the University, according to the Division of Management Information.

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“We’ve been charting it since 2006, which was a high point in terms of black student enrollment, but since 2006, there’s been a steady decline,” Cha-Jua said.

The yield — the number of students that enrolled in relation to those accepted – has fallen below that of the incoming class of African-American freshmen in fall 1968, the year “Project 500” took place.

Project 500 was an initiative to boost African-American enrollment following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The project surpassed its goal by enrolling 565 students and enacted a benchmark goal for future years.

“They should never have an incoming class that’s smaller than Project 500,” Cha-Jua said.

Cha-Jua believes the primary reason for the decline is an increase in student tuition in hopes to offset a decrease in state funding.

Corey Evans, Men of Impact president and senior in AHS, agreed that the increase in tuition plays a potential role in turning African-American students away.

Men of Impact is a student organization that addresses challenges faced by minorities on campus and helps them to become more interactive members of society.

“I would say that the tuition increase is probably one of the biggest factors because, statistically speaking, it’s harder for African-Americans coming from lower-income families than other students,” Evans said. “Without scholarships or financial aid support, it might be hard to come up with the money to attend the University.”

Founded in 1991, Men of Impact was originally aimed at helping African-American men on campus; however, in recent years, it has been extended to various minorities to a certain degree, including females on campus. 

“We’ve been talking with (the Bruce D. Nesbitt Center) director and giving our thoughts about why the decline has been happening and how we can help improve that number,” Evans said. “Basically, a lot of brainstorming to come to a conclusion with how we can actually increase that number, but for us to do that we need to find out the cause.”

Evans also said the organization had reached out to the administration, but “hadn’t been receiving much word from them.”

Keith Marshall, associate provost, said in an email that the administration monitors admissions data and enrollments carefully, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has been aware of the decline in African-American enrollments “for some time.”

With respect to the cause for the decrease, Marshall said surveys conducted suggest that students who applied to the University but chose not to attend did so primarily due to the high cost of tuition and the lack of sufficient financial aid.

Marshall said that the administration considers the issue a priority.

“The University of Illinois is committed to enrolling a diverse freshman class, and the decreasing enrollments of African-American students is unacceptable to anyone committed to that goal,” Marshall said. “The Office of Undergraduate Admissions is working with a variety of groups around campus to increase applications and yields of African-American students.”

Rory James, director of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, said the falling numbers are not a surprise to him.

“I think administration has been very transparent in letting us know not only their concerns, but also our concerns, so that we can come to the table and have candid conversation about how we can work to improve the number of African-American students on this campus,” James said.

James said he has considered the tuition a major factor in the decline, and that despite the fact that tuition increase is an issue for institutions across the country, he is sensitive to the fact that the University is a land-grant institution. 

“I just find it personally, and professionally, problematic when black students from Illinois who really want to come here can’t come to a land-grant institution,” James said. “I would like to see more opportunities for our students of color to find scholarships and aid that would assist them in paying the tuition.” 

In relevance to solving the problem, Cha-Jua said he thinks these issues are solvable, but they are a question of will and priority, which he does not believe the University maintains.

“Whenever there’s a problem that predominantly affects African-Americans, this institution, like the broader society, acts as if the problems are unsolvable.” Cha-Jua said. “They act as if they have neither the intelligence or the resources to solve the problem; all we hear is the good intentions, but we see no movement toward change.”

However, Marshall said the University is working toward change by creating a telecounseling unit to help recruiting efforts for faculty and students in Chicago The administration is also working to enhance peer recruitment programs and looking to dedicate more funding toward scholarships and financial aid, he said. 

James said he has faith in the University to increase the numbers, if the center continues to engage in conversation with University administration to come up with solutions to encourage more African-Americans to attend the University. 

“We have to make (African-Americans) feel like they’re welcome and we have to make them feel like they’re wanted here; I think when we start doing those things, we’ll see the numbers increase.” James said.

Faraz can be reached at [email protected].