How to Recruit Black Students at the U. of Michigan

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed Michigan voters to ban race-conscious admissions policies in higher education, I have a proposal to increase the number of African-American students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor: Try harder!

Black enrollment dipped to 4.4 percent this year, a figure that some attribute to the effects of Michigan’s constitutional ban on race as a factor in admissions, or to difficulties in competing with wealthy private institutions, or to other forces in a larger society in which affirmative action is challenged.

I have a different take on the situation. Notwithstanding the larger society, the University of Michigan must try harder, and take a lesson from one campus unit that gets its students: the athletic department.

The Michigan athletics department boasts of its prowess, especially the football program, with the most all-time wins in NCAA Division I history and a strong record of recruitment. I am not an expert on college football, but here’s my understanding—based on what others tell me—of what they do.

During recruitment, for example, coaches:

  • Start with a large database of prospective athletes and a recruiting budget of over $575,000 out of a total department budget of more than $135-million (not to mention a recent $227-million renovation of Michigan Stadium).
  • Go to high-school games and observe prospects closely.
  • Develop long-term relationships with high-school coaches who help students get good grades, compile a portfolio, and complete college applications.
  • Conduct outreach and home visits to parents and families to assure them that players will be in good hands.
  • Invite prospects to summer football camps to observe them and assess their potential.
  • Send letters, postcards, pamphlets, and messages reminding prospects of the university’s prestigious sports history.
  • Invite them to the campus for tailored tours, time with older students, and meet-ups with coaches.
  • Introduce them to past players at the university and professional players, who talk about the positive benefits of football in a young man’s life.
  • Host banquets for them and their parents.

Once at the university, coaches:

  • Provide players with wrap-around services and academic support for as long as they play.
  • Offer a three-story, state-of-the-art academic learning center with full-time counselors, supervised study tables, tutorial programs, a writing center, a mathematics lab, and time-management services.
  • Provide players with travel, training, apparel, hotel stays, room service, and meals.
  • Advise them on what courses to take, including independent studies and selecting a major; check on class attendance; and help with homework.
  • Enlist social workers to help players handle day-to-day pressures in the classroom and on the field, and life coaches who strengthen their self-confidence.
  • Offer large scholarships (though no direct monetary compensation).
  • Spend more than $275,000 on each scholarship football player, according to the Knight Commission.

If Michigan were to offer even a few of those services to all of its students, the results would be extraordinary.

This is not an endorsement of the athletics department as a “best practice,” for many practices are questionable.

Nor is it to suggest that when black students arrive at white Michigan, they find a culture that supports them, for they do not.

Nor is it to suggest that institutional leaders lack a commitment to dealing with this situation, which is not true.

However, the fact remains that black students were 4.4 percent of this year’s entering class—out of thousands of white students. Simply stated, institutional arguments about court cases, voter petitions, and constitutional amendments are insufficient, especially when the athletics department, year after year, gets its students and provides them with support.

Barry Checkoway is a professor of social work and urban planning at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

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