Talks and Op-Ed Columns by Dr. Sorensen

The Recruitment and Retention of African-American Students at
Traditionally White Universities: A Case Study of The University of Alabama

Andrew A. Sorensen, President
Nancy S. Barrett, Provost
The University of Alabama
August 1, 2001

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past decade about the recruitment and retention of African-American students.1,2 The intensity, if not the frequency, of these conversations has been increased by the national debate on affirmative action.3,4 Among the most noteworthy of the recent developments has been the attack by Ward Connerly and others on the use of affirmative action in college admissions, resulting in court cases5 and legislation such as Proposition 209 in California; 6 and debates about these issues leading up to the 2000 election.7,8

At The University of Alabama we have made a concerted effort not only to improve the recruitment, but also the retention of African-American students without resorting to race as a factor in admission decisions. In this paper, we describe the programs and initiatives we have launched that, in large measure, explain our success in recruiting and retaining black students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Recruitment of African-American Undergraduate Students

Our recruitment efforts have yielded an increase in our black first-time freshmen (BFF) enrollment that is precisely 10 times higher than the average of our sister institutions. We experienced a dramatic increase in BFF enrollment over the period 1993 to 2000, from 11.2% to 15.0%, or a 34% increase. For the same period, all institutions belonging to the then 30-member Southern University Group (SUG) - a group of peer institutions in our region - reported BFF enrollment growth of 0.3% from 8.9% to 9.2% - an increase of 3.4%.

Table I - Enrollment of Black First-Time Freshmen at Selected Universities as a Percent of Total Enrollment

Table - Black Enrollment Statistics

Another factor enhancing our recruitment of African-American students is the increasing number of black faculty. We believe that the recruitment of minority students and faculty must proceed in tandem, and that the success of one is at least partially dependent upon the other. We launched a minority faculty recruitment program during the 1996-97 academic year that has yielded good results. From the fall of 1996 to the fall of 2001, our full-time black faculty grew from 31 to 43, an increase of 39%. Although they comprise only 4.5% of our full-time faculty, we are striving for continued growth in the number of black faculty over the next several years.

Three other factors are also at work in our recruitment efforts. First, several years ago a group of our African-American students proposed an initiative in which they would be designated as recruiters for our University, especially targeting historically black high schools within a 100-mile radius of our campus. We provide them with uniforms they designed, University vans, and travel expenses. The concept underlying this program is that our African-American students can speak knowledgeably about their campus experiences to high school students who are just a year or two younger than they more effectively than older University employees, irrespective of their race. Feedback from these visits has been consistently positive.

Second, the University President visits historically black high schools (as well as those that are traditionally white), personally appealing to the students to consider enrolling at The University of Alabama. In a number of instances, he has been told that he is the first president of any institution of higher education to have ever visited that school.

Third, our University is making considerable progress in discussing issues of race with greater candor. Even though we have much work to do in dealing with racism, we have had several town hall meetings and numerous public lectures, as well as intensive university-wide workshops addressing this topic. We have also established a formal alliance with Stillman College, a neighboring historically black institution. Although we realize that the selection of commencement speakers and the awarding of honorary doctorates (all of which must be approved by our Board of Trustees) does not necessarily reflect institutional change, we are nonetheless gratified that among those recently honored in this manner are Vivan Malone Jones, whom then-Governor George Wallace attempted to prohibit from enrolling in our University, and Roderick Paige, U. S. Secretary of Education. Henry Louis Gates has been invited to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver our commencement address in May, 2002. We believe that an environment such as this – in which we provide honest discussion of our history and engage proudly and publicly in our excitement about how much the institution has changed – provides considerable encouragement and hope for African-American high school students who are deciding where to go to college.

In addition to all these programs and efforts, it is critical that we reach out to middle school students and to those in high school prior to their senior year. We have recently mounted two initiatives that have the long-term goal of contributing to our recruitment of African-American students, but that have not been in place long enough to determine their impact. These include GEAR UP, a program in which our students mentor young people from a local middle school in which the proportion of parents who have attended college is extremely low; and a program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute designed to interest minority high school students in biological research. These programs not only prepare these students for university work, but also motivate them to attend The University of Alabama and to succeed here.

Retention of African-American Undergraduate Students

We also have had considerable success with the retention of African-American students. Because freshman retention is so critical to improving the graduation rate for all students, intervention programs frequently focus on the freshman year. Here our experience is remarkably different from the national profile, with African-American freshman retention rates consistently higher than for whites. The retention rate for BFF averaged 87.5% between 1993-99, compared with 80.9% for WFF. For the most recent cohort, BFF retention was 85.3% compared with 82.2% for WFF. Comparable figures for the most recent cohort in the SUG institutions are 83.6% for BFF and 84.8% for WFF.

Among the explanations for the high BFF freshman retention are the social bonding with other students and strong parental support. Our students also tell us that they generally do not find the other traditionally white residential institutions in Alabama to be attractive transfer alternatives, because they have a much lower proportion of African-American enrollment (and thus in the eyes of many students do not have a critical mass of fellow black students to provide a robust minority community) as well as much higher rates of black student attrition. We are especially pleased that this effect of higher retention rates for African-Americans extends into their second year, with 76.9% of BFF and 71.8% of WFF retained after completing their sophomore year.

The fact that the first and second year attrition of African-American freshmen is lower than whites contradicts the widely disseminated notion that black students enter research universities, on average, ill prepared to do college-level work. Our University does not have special admissions criteria for African-Americans or any other minorities, and our threshold for admissions is the most stringent of any public institution in Alabama. Furthermore, we have no race-specific retention programs, although our TRIO programs are targeted at low-income, first-generation students. Reflecting the demographic characteristics of university students nationally, African-Americans are disproportionately represented among this group.

Our BFF retention rate is all the more noteworthy when one considers that these students come to us with lower average ACT scores than whites: the average BFF ACT score was 20.1 in the 1993-99 period compared with 23.5 for WFF. This too, mirrors nation-wide data. To the extent that BFF scores in math and English placement tests are lower than WFF, African-Americans benefit disproportionately from our special remediation programs. But having said that, the data for mean retention rates for the first two years demonstrate unequivocally that our African-American students, during their first two years, are more successful in completing and remaining in their respective academic programs than their white counterparts.

Other factors contributing to our unusually high African-American undergraduate retention rate are the following:

  • The University of Alabama attracts a high number of National Achievement Scholars. Last year we enrolled 16 freshmen in this program, the same number as Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. According to preliminary figures, all the state of Alabama’s National Achievement finalists who opted to stay in state for the fall of 2001 will be enrolling at The University of Alabama. Predictably, these students have a remarkably low attrition rate.
  • Other special programs targeted for the most competitive students include: the McNair Program, named after the first African-American astronaut; and the Rural Health Scholars Program, designed to equip students from rural communities who plan to return to their hometowns to enter the health care professions. Although these programs are not restricted to African-Americans, they nonetheless enroll a relatively higher proportion of black students. Each of these programs has a high faculty:student ratio, with extensive mentoring. Consequently, attrition from these programs is also negligible.

Regrettably, the higher retention rate for blacks disappears by the end of their fourth year. By then, only 20.9% of blacks have graduated, compared with 31.8% of whites. Unfortunately, the gap in graduation rates by race persists thereafter. The University of Alabama generally mirrors national trends in racial differences in 6-year graduation rates, in that whites typically have higher rates than blacks, although our differences are not as pronounced. The average 6-year graduation rate for our WFF between 1993-99 was 59%, compared with 53.5% for BFF: a gap of 5.5%. This compares with 63.6% and 48.2%, respectively, for all SUG institutions during the same period. This gap of 15.4% among our sister institutions is very nearly three times greater than ours. Although we are gratified that this gap between whites and African-Americans is narrower at The University of Alabama than a regional or national sample of traditionally white research universities, blacks still are less likely than whites to graduate after 6 years.9

We are disturbed by these phenomena and are examining our retention programs to understand why, on the one hand, our African-American freshmen, as well as sophomores, are less likely to drop out in the first two years than their white cohorts, yet remain at higher risk not to graduate in 4 or 6 years. Both nationally and regionally, graduation rates of African-American students are lower than their white counterparts. Clearly a multitude of factors are at work. Among the factors that are often cited to explain this phenomenon are: poorer high school preparation, greater financial difficulties, more pressing family responsibilities, lack of mentors and role models, deteriorating academic performance beyond the lower-division curriculum, and - at traditionally white institutions - social isolation.

We currently have a study underway to evaluate the factors contributing to student attrition, and especially in the junior and senior years. We are attempting to determine whether programs designed especially for African-American students are preferable to race-neutral programs in ameliorating student attrition and consequently improving graduation rates.

The data we have presented suggest that race can be associated with superior retention results and that, contrary to national trends, African-American students have the potential to succeed relative to whites in a large, complex, and selective research university like The University of Alabama. This is all the more remarkable in view of our University’s history of past racial segregation and, as a result, stereotyped as a place not welcoming to black students. The most infamous incident in our institution’s recent history is the 1963 "stand in the school house door," in which then-Governor George Wallace attempted to prevent the enrollment of black students.10

Recruitment and Retention of African-American Graduate Students

The enrollment of African-American graduate students also continues to increase, and we now have the highest enrollment of African-American graduate students in our University’s history. The total number of African-American graduate students for the fall of 2000 was 9.9% of on-campus graduate enrollment. This reflects tremendous growth: a 40.2% increase in African-American graduate students since 1997. This increase holds not only for recruitment, but also for retention. We awarded graduate degrees to 121 minority students in 2000, 9.2% of our total of 1,320 graduate degree recipients. In the most recent ranking of the top 100 doctorate degree programs published by Black Issues in Higher Education,11 The University of Alabama was seventh among all Traditional White Institutions (TWI) in the Southeast in the number of doctorates awarded African-Americans in Education, as well as seventh in African-American doctorates for all disciplines combined.

Among the activities we sponsor that are targeted for recruitment and retention of African-American graduate students are the following:

African-American Graduate Student Association. The Graduate School provides funds and support for the UA African-American Graduate Student Association, which had been inactive for several years before becoming active again in the fall of 1998. The group sponsors panel discussions, information fairs, and receptions. The association’s president serves as a representative to the Graduate Council. The Graduate School provides travel funds for officers to attend the National Black Graduate Student Conferences.

Outstanding Financial Assistance Programs. Since 1988, when the earliest of these programs commenced, the University has funded students for over $2 million in stipends and tuition awards. In 2000-2001 (summer, fall, and spring terms), a total of 33 students were supported through stipends and/or tuition scholarships.

SREB Minority Faculty Fellows. The Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) Minority Doctoral Scholars Program encourages ethnic minority students to pursue doctoral degrees and become college-level professors. During 2000-2001, 18 SREB fellows were supported with total tuition awards. Since its inception, 26 SREB scholars have received tuition support and stipends from the Graduate School. In several of the recent years, our University has had more students in this program than any other institution.

Future Faculty Fellows. Students from minority groups who plan to become college or university professors may apply for aid from the Future Faculty Fellows Program. Future Faculty Fellows receive annual stipends, departmental assistantships, and full-tuition scholarships for up to 4 years of full-time graduate study. In 2000-2001, the Graduate School funded three students with stipends of $9,000 each per year, as well as an additional $12,000. in tuition awards. Since this program started in 1991, 22 graduate students have been supported, of whom 9 have completed their doctoral degrees.

Joint Faculty Development. The Joint Faculty Development Program supports practicing college teachers who do not have a terminal degree in their particular field of instruction. Institutions participating in this program include Alabama State University, Alabama A&M University, and Oakwood College. Under this program, for the academic year 2000-2001, the Graduate School is supporting 3 HBCU faculty members, with full-time students receiving an annual stipend of $11,000 each. Since this program started in 1988, 19 students have been supported, and 9 have received their doctoral degrees.

JFD/Staff Development. This program is for faculty and staff of Stillman College, our HBCU in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In 2000-2001, 9 students have received tuition scholarships through its auspices.

We still have a way to go in achieving racial parity in graduation rates for our students, but we are determined to achieve this goal. It is our hope that this description of the programs designed to sustain our successes, as well as the challenges we face, will inspire others to continue exploring ways and sponsoring programs to address these critical issues.


  1. Gertrude Ezorsky, Racism and Justice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991
  2. Susan Clayton and Faye Crosby, Justice, Gender and Affirmative Action. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  3. S. Plous, "Ten Myths About Affirmative Action." Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 52, Issue 4 (1996), pp. 25-31.
  4. Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  5. David Montejano, "Maintaining Diversity at the University of Texas," in Robert Post and Michael Rogin, eds., Race and Representation: Affirmative Action. New York: Zone Books, 1998; pp. 359-369.
  6. Ruling by U. S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, Filed Nov. 27, 1996, In The United States District Court For The Northern District of California Coalition For Economic Equity, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Pete Wilson, et al., Defendants. No. C 96 4024 TEH Order Re Temporary Restraining Order.
  7. William Marshall, "Preferences for the Rich Grease the Way to College." Los Angeles Times.
  8. William Bowen and Derek Bok. "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  9. Janet Vandenabeele and Jodi Upton, "The Graduation Gap: A Detroit News Special Report." Detroit News, July 15, 2001.
  10. E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  11. "Top 100 Graduate Degree Producers," Black Issues in Higher Education; July 19, 2001, pp. 52-116

Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama