The University of Michigan's (U-M) 2003 U.S. Supreme Court victory in Gratz v Bolllinger was cut short in 2006 by passage of Michigan ballot Proposal 2/2006, which prohibits the use of affirmative action as a way to spur minority enrollment and even the play field for undergraduate admissions. But that hasn’t stopped the university from finding innovative ways to target Latino and African-American students that don’t contradict the Supreme Court ruling or give admissions preference to minority students.
Latinos account for 5 percent of the state of Michigan population, a much smaller percentage than in California or Florida, said William Collins, director of the university’s Center for Educational Outreach, which was launched in 2008 to find ways to reach minority audiences. The Latino population in Michigan, how-ever, is expected to double in the next 15 years, so attracting Hispanics is critical if the university wants to reflect the state population. Since the Center for Educational Outreach is not connected to the admissions department, it doesn’t admit students but makes minorities aware of what the college offers.
Gaining acceptance to the University of Michigan is demanding. Of its freshman class in 2010, students averaged a 3.8 GPA and 31 to 36 on the ACT. Still, U-M prides itself on attracting a diverse student body and reports that of its 41,924 undergraduates, 5 percent are Latino, 6 percent are African-American, 1.5 percent are Native American and 15 percent are Asian-American, constituting a 26 percent minority population.
In 2008 the university launched the College Corps program – an intensive, 10-week program of workshops focused on college access and awareness that targets secondary school students in underserved communities, explains Michael Turner, coordinator of College Corps and outreach coordinator at the university, based in Ann Arbor. The workshops concentrate on financial aid, careers, setting goals and applying to college.
Why start College Corps? “It’s a response to the Supreme Court verdict. The university isn’t blind to the fact that many of these communities are undersourced,” Turner said. Hence the program tries to level the playing field and provide opportunities for talented minorities who can meet U-M’s criteria. While it hopes to attract students to U-M, if students are inspired to attend Eastern Michigan University or a community college, the program still meets its goals, Turner suggests.
Thirty University of Michigan students, mostly Latino undergraduates, tutor and mentor students in middle and high schools in Monroe, Mich., located 30 miles south of Ann Arbor. “You must reach them early. Twelfth grade is too late,” Collins said.
The Latino U-M undergraduates that volunteer receive no pay but want to give back to the community. They mentor 30 Monroe students after school, helping them with academic work and explaining what colleges expect from students. Nearly 90 percent are first-generation Latinos whose parents haven’t attended college.
University of Michigan coordinates two College Corps programs. The Monroe program attracts mostly Latino students. The other program is located in Brightmor, a Detroit neighborhood whose school population is mostly African-American. Both programs are open to students of other ethnic backgrounds as well. Turner would like to see a program started in Dearborn, where a large Muslim population resides.
Both programs are funded by a $12,000 Michigan Campus Compact Grant, which requires a yearly resubmission. Combined, the programs cost about$30,000 to run annually, and U-M supplies the additional $18,000 funding.
College Corps is filling in the admissions gaps since the high schools don’t have the budgets to provide intensive college counseling. One of its primary goals is to raise students’ aspirations. Many of the Latino students only have community colleges on their radar screen, and College Corps encourages them, when appropriate, to consider more academically rigor-ous colleges, such the University of Michigan.
“How do we reach out to communities and make them aware of college culture and position them to go to college and become high-earning members of society?” asks Collins. Turner added, “We want them to know that college is possible.” Students are taught that attending a college requires extensive planning and an ability to choose the college that best fits their academic performance.
The College Corps workshops teach a variety of skills. For example, students learn goal setting, which entails how to set a plan and complete it, such as applying to college or researching financial aid. Students are encouraged to show perseverance and not give up if they reach an impediment or obstacle. During the workshops, students fill out applications for three different colleges to provide exposure to the complicated admissions process, which has derailed many minority students. A U-M financial aid officer leads a work-shop that explains how to apply for financial aid, including Pell Grants, and explains what resources and aid colleges such as University of Michigan offer.
Ingredients that Make College Corps Successful
Two other aspects of the program contribute to its effectiveness: involving parents and bringing students to the University of Michigan campus. College Corps holds two parents nights. To attract parents, it notifies them of events via regular mail and e-mail and, as an incentive, provides dinner. During the program, parents listen to a financial aid representative who explains how college can be made affordable through grants, scholarships and loans.
In addition, Monroe students are brought on campus to attend a Latino cultural event that includes classical dance and musical performances. “We want to immerse them in campus life,” said Turner, a Detroit native, so students don’t see it as a “foreign territory. Students need to feel welcome on campus.”
Attracting the Right Volunteers Is Essential
Another key to the program’s effectiveness is attracting U-M students on campus as tutors and mentors who have a willingness to help others. Since University of Michigan is a highly competitive college and students must spend time working with students after class and travel 30 miles to Monroe, under-graduates must be very willing to give back. College Corps works closely with Maximizing Academic Success (MAS), which was started at U-M as a student-run organization to expose Latino youth to higher education, explains María Rahman, who heads MAS and is a fourth-year engineering major.
Mentors must take a three-credit sociology course, Project Community, that trains them to work with high school students and focuses on social justice. Collins says that College Corps mentors are trained in how to understand and cope with issues that can arise for Latino students. For example, Latinas, even those with high GPAs, have often been discouraged from attending college in order to help out home with younger children or earning money to balance the family budget. Students explain to parents that earning a college degree can multiply their earnings many times over during their working life.
Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Works
Another factor that contributes to making the program effective is peer-to-peer mentoring. It raises a high school student’s comfort level when the mentor is someone with whom the adolescent can identify, someone who understands what the teenager is experiencing. University professors can be intimidating to first-generation students who aren’t familiar with college. Rahman added, “It allows students to be comfortable enough to listen and learn from one another without the typical hierarchal learning styles.”
The student volunteers who succeed show “timeliness, organization, professionalism and an eagerness to learn, as well as helping others,” Rahman said.
Why do students volunteer? Turner says that the undergraduate mentors and tutors volunteer for a variety of reasons, but most have a passion for helping others. Volunteers are often involved in helping fields such as teaching and nursing but can also be science and music majors who want to deepen their knowledge. Said Rahman, “Aside from a great community service activity on their résumé, it allows them to break away from the rigorous college routine and make a difference in one person’s life.”
Rahman said she’d like to see the Monroe students get help with their test taking. Collins noted that “minority students haven’t fared well on standardized tests. They haven’t had the experience and exposure with test taking.”
When Skylar Soto was in middle school in Monroe, Mich., she participated in Maximizing Academic Success. MAS, she said, provided tutoring and academic preparation but also created an entire support system for the mostly minority participants. “If you needed support for anything, academic help or socially, someone at MAS was there to offer help,” Soto said. Her MAS experience led her to participate in College Corps.
In the fall of 2010, Soto started as a freshman at the University of Michigan. She’s part of the College of Engineering and leaning toward majoring in mechanical engineering. Since she’s most talented at math and enjoys problem solving, engineering suits her. She says engineering offers a wealth of opportunities, challenges and careers.
Soto’s mom and dad are Mexican and American. Her dad works on the Chrysler assembling line, and her mom, who is Caucasian, is a waitress in Monroe. MAS provided early exposure to the University of Michigan cam-pus, which motivated Soto back then to envision attending U-M.
Soto describes College Corps as offering college preparation, emphasizing teamwork and collaboration, and providing scholarship information. She learned how to apply for college and financial aid, which helped her identify $18,000 in scholarship money, reducing her need to take out loans. “I thought I had a grasp on scholarships, but I learned that there was a lot I didn’t know,” she admitted.
As a freshman at U-M, Soto had to make certain adjustments. For example, she had to master managing her time, “and not waiting until the last minute because there’s no one there to discipline you.” But since one quarter of U-M’s student body is minority, and minorities have a strong presence on campus, Soto felt as if she fit into campus life. College Corps and MAS paved the way and showed her “there were many opportunities and resources on campus,” she said.
After two years, College Corps has not been evaluated, but Turner says it should be judged on whether the high school students are improving academically, their attendance in the workshops, parental involvement, and what percentage of students apply and are accepted by colleges.
Overall, what’s the effect of College Corps on Monroe’s minority students? “It levels the playing field and provides more access to college for first-generation students. The university meets students where they’re at, in their community. It focuses on academic excellence,” Turner said.