As Affirmative Action Comes Under Fire, More Schools Look to Economic Diversity

(Memphis) A recent Supreme Court ruling generally preserved race as a factor in college admissions but called for further scrutiny of its use. This has refocused the conversation on other factors, like socioeconomic background, that contribute to a diverse student body.

In the Mid-South, many colleges and universities do not look at race or family income, but officials are very conscious of attracting economically disadvantaged students as a way of also achieving racial diversity.

At the area’s largest colleges and universities, between one-third and two-thirds of undergraduates are recipients of Pell Grants, which are federal grants for students with the greatest need.

Often the measure of a school’s socioeconomic diversity, Pell Grants are given to needy families based on information in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The following percentages of students at nearby institutions receive Pell Grants:

Tennessee State University – 68%

University of Memphis – 57%

Middle Tennessee State University – 50%

Mississippi State University – 36%

University of Mississippi – 35%

University of Tennessee – 32%

These percentages are relatively high, compared to many of the nation’s most selective colleges.

The following percentages are of students who receive some kind of financial aid at each Mid-South college:

University of Mississippi – 80%

Middle Tennessee State University – 79%

Tennessee State University – 76%

University of Memphis – 74%

Mississippi State – 65%

University of Tennessee – 59%

In Memphis, where poverty is often the reason for a lack of higher education, such grants and scholarships are crucial.

“The odds are against us,” said Carlos Clear, a graduate of Manassas High School, who will be attending the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

At Manassas, every senior must apply to 10 colleges. School staff members walk them through the process, including how to fill out a FAFSA for financial aid.

“I think I’d be lost right now. I don’t think I would have applied to any schools,” Clear said.

He pointed out that not enough high school students across Memphis are getting the information on how to get into college, and how to pay for it.

Many, like him, are the first in their family to go to college.

James Griffin, principal at Manassas High School, said he often hears the following statements of doubt: “Lack of support and guidance once they leave here, any medical issues at home, fear.”

Despite these obstacles, every senior at Manassas High School graduated this May, and every single one of them will be attending a two- or four-year college.

“Every child doesn’t begin this race in the same place,” Griffin said.

The officials at Memphis City Schools know this too. The district has joined a national FAFSA completion project, which tracks the students enrolled with the actual FAFSA application filed with the federal government.

Dr. Randy McPherson, director of K12 counseling services and college preparation at MCS, said that colleges and universities have become much more sensitive to creating an economically diverse student body within the last 10 years.

“They’re coming to Memphis on a regular basis to make individual high school visits,” he said.

On the college side, schools have different strategies for recruiting low-income students and helping them pay.

The University of Memphis puts a list of scholarship sites online for students to research. They also have a program to help first-generation college students adjust to university life.

“They are academically able, but sometimes they don’t mentally see themselves as being able to succeed or fitting in,” said Betty Huff, Vice Provost of Enrollment Services at University of Memphis.

Huff herself was the first in her family to go to college. She said she remembers the moment her high school counselor approached her about college, and helped her get a full scholarship.

“I didn’t even know financial aid existed,” Huff said. “That moment changed my whole life.”

Now she hopes to help others have access to the same opportunities.

Huff said U of M even had an event called “Tiger for a Day,” to get sixth graders on campus to experience college life.

The University of Mississippi also has strong recruitment efforts, including a scholarship dedicated solely to students from Shelby, Tipton and Fayette counties.

Ole Miss alumni are key to financial aid, since they donate a bulk of the institutional scholarships available.

Dewey Knight, associate director of the Center for Student Success and First-Year Experience, said they are often fighting a stereotype of the school as an elite institution.

“They think that it’s just something for somebody else. And we try to send the message, no it’s for you,” Knight said.

Alumni like Eli Manning have donated large amounts of money for this purpose.

While there is a great deal of education about opportunities and funding, students and educators in the Mid-South agree there’s more that can be done.

Kanafa Green, a Manassas alumna who will be attending the University of Memphis in the fall, said that it would be easy for a student with little support to turn to the streets looking for answers when violence or tragedy befalls them.

Green said the support she gets from her family, and the intense efforts of staff at Manassas High School, have helped her tremendously.

She was able to receive not only a Pell Grant, but also a HOPE Scholarship for Tennessee residents.

“Everybody wants to give somebody a chance,” she said.

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