Sun-Sentinel - 10/15/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Scott Travis
Florida's private colleges are outpacing the public university system when it comes to attracting minority students.
A new report shows that 44 percent of Florida's private college undergraduate students are minorities. That's more than in the state public university system, where minority students account for about 40 percent of all undergraduates. The statistics come from 2006 federal data in a report by Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, an association that represents private, nonprofit institutions.
Private-college students also tend to come from less affluent families than their public-college counterparts, data show. At private schools, 36 percent are from families with incomes less than $60,000, compared with 31 percent at public schools.
The figures are surprising, given that Florida public universities have among the nation's lowest tuition, about $3,200 for undergraduate classes. Private universities charge at least four times that.
"I've never seen one of our universities say, 'Can they afford it?' when deciding whether to admit a student," said Ed Moore, executive director of the state independent colleges association.
Christopher Kantenga, 21, of Fort Myers, applied to historically black Florida A&M University but wasn't accepted. He got into Nova Southeastern University in Davie with a combination of grants and loans. He said his education costs him about $5,000 a year.
"I just wanted to go into pharmacy. I didn't really look into whether a school was public or private," he said.
Nova Southeastern University charges about $19,000 per year, too much for Stephanie Duesler, 20, who was born and raised in Davie. Duesler, the daughter of Colombian immigrants, said she stacked up scholarships, Pell Grants and Florida resident assistance grants. She hasn't taken out student loans.
"Nova offered me a ton of scholarships, and the location is close to home, so it was definitely a clear-cut decision," she said.
In fall 2006, 93,497 minority undergraduate students attended public universities and 36,387 attended private schools. While private universities have a greater proportion of minority students, the state university system served about three times more students.
Two state institutions serve predominantly minority populations: the largely Hispanic Florida International University, in Miami, and the mostly black Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee.
The private schools' minority enrollment includes three historically black colleges, Florida Memorial University, in Miami Gardens, Edward Waters College, in Jacksonville, and Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach.
In the past decade, private universities increased their minority numbers at a faster pace than public institutions. In 1996, minority enrollment at both public and private institutions was 34 percent.
Minorities are the majority at seven of Florida's 28 private universities, including Barry University, in Miami Shores, and Nova Southeastern.
"We're not proactively seeking minority students to fill seats as schools in New England do. For us, it happens naturally," said Angela Scott, assistant vice president for enrollment services at Barry, a Catholic university. "I think Barry has a reputation of welcoming students of all cultures and faiths."
One factor cited for the popularity of private schools among minority students is that Florida's public institutions have raised admissions requirements in recent years. That has left private schools to fill the void for the B student who can't get into the University of Florida.
Another factor is the popularity of Bright Futures scholarships, which pay college tuition for students who meet academic requirements in high school. In 2006-07, the state paid $398 million for Bright Futures scholarships, three times as much as it allocated for aid to poor students.
Many of the state's universities also use their own resources to provide money to students they want to attract.
"Universities such as the University of Florida are increasingly using their own institutional aid dollars to buy up high-performing students who aren't from low-income families," said Danette Gerald, assistant director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy group.
University of Florida Provost Janie Fouke recognizes that the state's decision to put so much money into Bright Futures has hurt public universities' abilities to attract minority students. Statistically, fewer minorities perform well enough in high school to earn the state scholarships.
"If the state displayed different values, it would probably be easier to attract people from historically under-represented groups, who frequently have fewer financial resources," she said.
Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, couldn't be reached for comment, despite several attempts through his spokesman. But he has said the state should offer more need-based and less merit-based aid. He would prefer that affluent families pay a greater share of college, while lower-income families get more help.
Private universities say they also have become savvy at identifying money to help minority and low-income students. The state offers a $3,000 per year credit to students attending private schools, which students combine with a $3,200 Bright Futures scholarship.
Most private schools also offer financial assistance for low-income students. And they can apply for federal Pell Grants, which can equal $4,300 a year. About 37 percent of Florida's private school students qualify for Pell Grants, compared with 28 percent at state schools, according to federal data.
Many people have misconceptions about private universities, as a lot of media coverage focuses on highly selective schools such as Harvard and Columbia, said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
But observers expect the role of private schools for minority and lower-income students to grow in the future as Florida's public institutions become more selective by raising their tuition and standards and capping enrollment.
"In a way," Pals said, "our colleges are taking on the role that public institutions were created for in the first place."