“Save the Babies”

On Friday morning, I watched part of the Southern University System Board meeting. I already knew that the revised state university admission criteria had resulted in a 48% increase in new freshman enrollment at SUNO. Between regular freshman enrollment and students in the SUNO-SUSLA bridge program, there are 400 new freshmen there this fall – an increase of about 100 students over last year. At the board meeting, it was announced that 80 SUNO students, or one third of that class would not have otherwise been admitted this fall.

Southern University at Baton Rouge also announced at the board meeting that they have over 1300 freshmen there this fall. Since all the state’s HBCUs share similar demographics as far as admission criteria are concerned (even though SUNO serves an even more underserved population than SUBR or Grambling when factoring in family income), I calculated that without the admission criteria changes, their freshman class would have been about the same as last year.

I rejoiced. And I cried.

That’s 500 kids, almost all African American. At just two schools.

I was afraid that the admission criteria were changed too late to make a difference this fall.

But if my calculations hold statewide, then somewhere in the range of 600-800 more African American students are attending one of our state’s colleges and universities this fall compared to last. Maybe more—even up to almost 1,000, since SUBR’s freshman enrollment is up significantly over even Fall 2013. They did a lot of things to grow that class this year, which was a huge gamble because they wouldn’t have worked without adjustments to the admission criteria. They would have just attracted more kids that they wouldn’t have been able to admit. Again, based on my calculations their class would have been almost exactly the same size as last year without the changes. But the gamble paid off. Kudos to SUBR.

While a bunch of other people were involved in getting the admission criteria changed going all the way up to campus and system heads, state legislators, and the Board of Regents administration, I had a hand in it. I will go so far as to say that if it weren’t for some of the things I did both to spark the discussion and to provide data in support of the changes, they might not have changed at all, at least not this year. While I’m certainly proud of this, as a person of faith I feel more humbled than anything else—I was just in the right place, at the right time, with the right information, and simply responded to the still small voice telling me to take action.

Over five years ago when the “zero developmental” admission criteria were announced, I knew it would be devastating for the African American student population in our state. I screamed and cried and generated lots of tables and didn’t get anywhere then. But then after witnessing the fall 2014 admission cycle first hand as an admissions director—and seeing the worst of my fears become reality—I screamed and cried and generated lots of tables and this time it worked. People listened, took action, and the state university admission criteria were changed in June through a combination of policy changes and legislation changing the “zero dev ed” line in GRAD Act.

And almost as soon as that happened, I wasn’t an admissions director anymore. That’s another story entirely and I won’t get into that today. My career in higher ed isn’t over like I thought it might be back when I first started writing my blog. In fact, the more I stepped out not caring if it would mean the end of my career, the more empowered and effective I became. But several things in my personal life exploded around the end of the legislative session, and I had to move back home, job or no job. Fortunately, I got a job. Thus why I haven’t posted here in months.

Back to the screaming and crying stuff. I knew five years ago that I was about to witness the mass educational disenfranchisement of our state’s African American population if nothing was done. Ten years ago, Katrina gave cover for the complete takeover of nearly all of Orleans Parish’s public schools. In the floodwaters’ wake was an influx of young, idealistic, well-meaning, mostly northern, but largely clueless whites courtesy of Teach for America who came into many of those schools. I have a confession here. I am a well-meaning white chick from the North. But I pray to God that even though I can’t help being a well-meaning white chick from the North, that I am not totally clueless. I got here long before Katrina. I’m not TFA and am the product of community colleges and state schools. I’m older and while I obviously have a strong idealistic streak I’m not blind to the systemic poverty and institutional (and not so institutional) racism in our state and country and know that saying that schools which dare to serve these populations are always “bad schools” blames the victim and perpetuates the problem while we continue to build the pipeline between school and prison under the guise of reform.

But both UNO and SUNO came back after Katrina as well. And not everyone was happy about that. Even though SUNO was recovering faster than UNO as far as enrollment was concerned, despite huge challenges, there were those who would have rather that SUNO go away, Grambling be privatized, and SUBR be significantly smaller.

And that African American students be relegated to community colleges, if they went to school at all.

Shrinking higher ed so that so-called liberal faculty leave and African Americans get increasingly limited educational opportunities sure looks to me like a recipe to ensure our state remains a bright red into perpetuity, doesn’t it? While our majority black per-capita prison population remains close to being number one in the entire developed world?

Black lives matter? In our state, not so much. Sorry. Just call me a clueless idealistic white chick from the North if you don’t agree with me on this one.

While it’s by no mean dismantled—not even close—we at least punched a hole in the pipeline. Even though friends in the LCTCS aren’t particularly happy about it (not everyone believes that my number one competitor for students was “No Where,” not the community colleges), I’m still proud of what I did. It is probably the most significant thing I have accomplished in my career, even though I probably won’t get any credit for it (hard to claim credit as an anonymous blogger, LOL). I don’t care about the credit though; I care about the kids that I hope are saved. But it is only a hole. It could be patched up, and not everyone will get out. But if I helped even one kid escape through anything I have written, researched, said, or done, it is worth it.

I didn’t do what I did to save SUNO, SUBR or Grambling, or indeed any school. Although our state desperately needs to invest in our higher education infrastructure, not disinvest as we have been doing since Bobby Jindal became governor. We need to invest in our universities and community colleges. Unlike other states with a decent higher education infrastructure that includes an adequate mix of publics and privates—here, if it were not for the publics we would have squat. But instead we are making it damn near impossible for students to go to school as we have been doing, and are still doing.

By the way, this weekend, a young black man was killed in Jefferson Parish.

I don’t know the circumstances, other than that he was killed in a violent barrage of gunfire.

And I cried. I knew him. He was a college student who shouldn’t have died. He was, by all reports, getting his life on track and taking advantage of the opportunities he was given in school. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. A life full of promise emerging from a life full of struggle and hardship—and at just 22 years old it’s over. What a waste. What a goddamn waste.

Whenever I would tell mostly white friends that we were literally saving lives by admitting students to college, they would politely shake their heads. Hyperbole? Those lives don’t matter? Code for “you are just a liberal bleeding heart clueless white chick from the North?”

But we still lost one this weekend.

Hyperbole?

No. I assumed that every person I admitted to school was a life saved. Every. Single. One. Because way too many of them really were.

One of my old co-workers used to say I just wanted to “save the babies.” That became my battle cry. I would be running out to another meeting with another stack of charts exposing how evil the “zero dev ed” admission criteria were, and I’d pass by his desk. “I’m saving the babies!” I’d shout as I ran out the door.

Yeah, I could have loaded the top of the funnel instead, hoping I’d find enough qualified students to meet our class.

But I knew that was a rigged game. Could I have done that and succeeded? Maybe. We’d have got them from out of area and out of state, I guess, and could have even spent ourselves broke if we tried hard enough. We actually were doing a lot to recruit outside our traditional market, but my heart, soul, passion and sweat were really invested into striking at the evil core of GRAD Act.

That’s because at the same time, our local kids were getting ready to graduate from high school, and I knew a whole bunch of them didn’t believe they had a place to go other than the streets. How discouraging is it to be told, if you do well, complete core, get a certain GPA, you’ll be able to go to college, and then to be told no?

I had to save the babies.

Because otherwise a whole lot more will end up like this young man did this past weekend. Without even an out like he had.

I’m so sad we couldn’t save them all.

But I’m convinced that we saved a bunch of lives this fall, even though the state admission criteria were changed at literally the 11th hour as far as college admissions are concerned. Even though I’m not in admissions now, I still look at transcripts at my new job. I can’t tell you how many folks with master’s degrees and PhDs started school needing developmental math and English.

I’ll be damned if we just send people just like them back to the streets because they aren’t “college-ready” by a flawed standard that did a better job of keeping students out of college rather than in college.

But by all reports, more of Louisiana’s African American kids really are in college this fall.

So while I’m still very sad we lost one, I am hopeful that many wonderful, beautiful and fruitful lives were saved and changed as a result.

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