After years of dwindling Black student enrollment, the University of South Florida is on track to welcome the most diverse freshman class in its history.
Admission deposits are up 13 percent for Black students and up more than 3.5 percent for Hispanic students. The $200 nonrefundable payments are only a tentative commitment to the university and don’t always translate to enrollments. But officials see them as a good predicter of how many students will eventually show up to start their college careers.
At a recent board of trustees meeting, university officials said 457 Black students had placed deposits for the summer and fall semesters, compared to 398 last year. While that works out to a few dozen more students in a class of 6,300, university leaders say they are encouraged.
“We’re never satisfied,” USF president Steve Currall told trustees last week, “but we’re very gratified and energized by these trends.”
The uptick comes after a 2.4 percent decline in Black enrollment over the last five years, followed by last summer’s racial reckoning over the murder of George Floyd. A summer of protests prompted sharp complaints that institutions like USF were lagging when it came to equity, and the pressure forced a more intense focus on diversity.
Of particular concern was USF’s St. Petersburg campus, where one of the 157 freshmen admitted last fall was Black — a grim statistic that caught the attention of city officials and state lawmakers.
Going into this fall, 48 Black students have put down admission deposits to attend USF in St. Petersburg, up from 18 this time last year.
Helping to drive the influx was an overall 7 percent increase in deposits for all races and ethnicities university-wide as pandemic restrictions eased. And something else: an intensive push to make individual phone calls to some 400 “high ability” Black students and their families.
The effort involved 50 Black faculty and staff, members of the USF board of trustees and the St. Petersburg campus board, as well as provost Ralph Wilcox and Currall, the president.
It’s a tactic often used by smaller private schools — and it can be labor-intensive — but the personal touch can lead to overall improvement, said dean of admissions Glen Besterfield.
A year ago, USF sociology professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman penned a letter on behalf of almost 90 Black faculty and staff members calling on the university to work harder at ending systemic racism.
Hordge-Freeman, now interim vice president of institutional equity, corralled Black faculty and staff members to make the calls. They were assigned to students in their respective fields — young people they could potentially mentor once they got to campus.
The model could be used to try to recruit other underrepresented groups, Hordge-Freeman said.
While some calls landed in voicemail, others lasted up to an hour and included further conversations with parents and grandparents.
“Oftentimes for racial and ethnic minorities these are family decisions,” Hordge-Freeman said. “That’s the type of work it’s going to take to usher in the transformation we want to see.”
Though the task took time, she said she’s heard that faculty felt rewarded and were inspired to reflect on their own experiences.
“Faculty understand that personal connections make the difference,” she said. And students “appreciated being identified as special and not just numbers.”
Besterfield, the admissions dean, said there was much to learn from the recruitment push.
Some of the successes, he said, could be attributed to initiatives like a USF program that guarantees admission to high school students who meet certain criteria. In 2019, the partnership expanded to 17 high schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties that receive federal Title 1 funding for low-income students.
Additionally, he said, the university reduced its emphasis on standardized testing this year due to the pandemic. Historically, researchers have seen gaps in standardized test scores related to students’ race and socioeconomic status.
Overall, the incoming class at USF saw a 17-point drop in SAT scores and slight dip in GPAs, but remained similar in profile to last year.
“It probably wasn’t easy finishing high school last year,” Besterfield said. “You can bring in a great class, still maintain a profile and have beautiful diversity of it.”
Paul Dosal, vice president for student success, said growing the number of underrepresented students was about more than improving access to higher education. The focus should be “access for success,” he said.
Of all racial groups at USF, Black students have the highest retention rate, a measure of how many first-time, first-year undergrads return for the next semester.
Besterfield has yet to crunch the numbers to see how many students who were called put down deposits compared to previous years. Whatever the number, he said, the calling campaign can help Black students feel like they belong on campus.
“Even if we get voicemail, you’re showing that student we care about you, and sometimes that makes the difference,” he said.
“I’m not sure if it matters to me personally what they yield was. I think it’s what you have to do.”