The College of Charleston saw a slight bump in minority student enrollment this semester, thanks in part to a new pilot program intended to increase diversity at one of the least diverse public colleges in the state.
The “Top 10 Percent” program, launched last fall, offers automatic admission to C of C to all students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes in seven Lowcountry counties, regardless of their scores on college-entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT.
The program — open to students from Berkeley, Charleston, Clarendon, Colleton, Dorchester, Orangeburg and Williamsburg counties — was designed to attract underrepresented minority students, particularly those from poor, rural areas, where students are less likely to go to college.
So far, college officials say the results are promising: more than 230 eligible students from the pilot counties applied to C of C, according to the college’s admissions data. All of them were accepted and, ultimately, 83 decided to enroll this semester — a 22 percent jump from fall 2015 in the number of enrolled students from those seven counties. And across all race and ethnicity demographics, the number of enrolled students from pilot counties increased from the previous year.
The inaugural Top 10 Percent class includes 47 white students and 36 students of color. Thirty-three are first-generation college students, and 11 hail from rural school districts in Clarendon, Colleton, Orangeburg and Williamsburg counties.
“I think what (this program) does is it turns the light on above a door for a student to say, ‘If I’ve been a strong student in high school, the College of Charleston wants me to be part of their community,’ ” said Jimmie Foster, assistant vice president for admissions and financial aid. “And I think that’s encouraged students to not only apply, but then to take it a step further and come to campus and meet with faculty and staff and see if it’s the right fit.”
The college’s program is similar to Texas’ “Top 10 Percent Rule,” a law passed in 1997 in response to a federal court order barring affirmative action in state schools. The law, which guarantees admission to all state-funded universities to Texas students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, has been credited with improving diversity at the state’s top public colleges and universities.
College President Glenn McConnell floated the Top 10 Percent program two years ago, not long after he arrived on campus under a flurry of public scrutiny. The former lieutenant governor’s appointment as college president inspired intense backlash, mostly due to his affinity for preserving Confederate heritage. McConnell’s critics openly feared his Confederate affiliations would hinder the college’s efforts to diversify its mostly white student body.
But minority enrollment has slowly inched upward. This year, the college welcomed more than 500 students of color — its most diverse freshman class in history. Overall, 19 percent of C of C students are racial and ethnic minorities, up from 10 percent in 2009. Black enrollment is nearly 8 percent, up 2 percentage points from seven years ago, though Foster said “there’s still much more work to be done” to improve diversity. The state’s population, for instance, is about 28 percent black.
Joe Kelly, an English professor and former co-director of the President’s Diversity Commission, who pitched the Top 10 Percent program idea to McConnell in 2014, said he was cautiously optimistic about the results.
“The program is clearly capturing a whole lot more minority students than our normal recruitment efforts do, so I think that’s very good,” Kelly said. “In order for it to succeed, it has to get ramped up.”
Dedicated scholarships for students in the program are essential, Kelly said, if the college is serious about increasing enrollment among underrepresented minorities. While Top 10 Percent students are not guaranteed any scholarship money — and in the future, this may change, Foster said — the college does provide them with a suite of support services intended to ensure their academic success.
“The one thing we realized with the Top 10 Percent program was that the students would have come from different schools with different levels of preparation,” said Lynne Ford, associate vice president for the academic experience.
Top 10 Percent students, for example, are each assigned a trained peer academic coach to help them develop study skills, like time management and organization, and navigate campus. They’re also invited to special social and professional development events, and required to meet with their academic advisers at least twice a semester.
Trisani Mukhopadhyay, an 18-year-old biology major, applied to C of C after hearing about the Top 10 Percent program. Mukhopadhyay, whose parents are from India, is the first in her family to go to college in the United States.
An aspiring surgeon, Mukhopadhyay said the program is a good option for minority student seeking additional guidance and mentoring opportunities.
“I feel like if this weren’t available, I would have had a harder time transitioning as a freshman into college,” she said. “If you don’t have the right guidance you might not have as successful of a time.”
Still, Anthony Greene, an African-American studies and sociology professor, has “some strong reservations” about the Top 10 Percent program, including whether the students in the program will stay at C of C and ultimately graduate.
A study published this year by the nonprofit Education Trust found that black students at C of C graduate at a much lower rate (53.5 percent) than their white counterparts (67.1 percent), and the gap has widened over the last decade.
“We haven’t a created a campus environment that’s overall welcoming to students of color,” Greene said. “The 10 Percent program, again, conceptually is good, but what is the university doing to actually create an inclusive environment?”
Lanasa Clarkson, a 19-year-old sophomore from Camden, echoed these concerns Thursday night at a meeting inside Randolph Hall, where college administrators took questions about C of C’s diversity efforts before a standing-room-only crowd. Clarkson, a double major in African-American studies and political science, said she’s often uncomfortable as the only black student in many of her non-African-American studies classes.
“A lot of people I came into school with, they transferred out of the College of Charleston because they didn’t feel like the people here, administration here or teachers here, actually wanted them to be here,” she said. “(There’s) just not a good representation of minorities here.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.