Admission and Retention of Minority Students in Large Universities

William E. Sedlacek, Counseling Center, University of Maryland
Dennis W. Webster, Counseling Center, University of Maryland

A national survey indicates Black freshman enrollment has increased from 3 percent in 1969 to 5 percent in 1976, down from 6 percent in 1973. Non-Black minority enrollment remains at less than 2 percent for any group. Private schools have more special programs and retain a large percentage of minority students.

The American College Personnel Association, through its Commission on Assessment for Student Development, has sponsored and partially funded a series of seven consecutive studies on minority admissions to large universities. The staff of the Cultural Study Center and the Counseling Center of the University of Maryland, College Park, have conducted and reported these studies. The unique feature of these studies is that they have focused on admissions criteria as well as the number of entering freshmen. In this way, policy and outcomes can be related. Perhaps the biggest problem in education is that there is often great publicity devoted to an educational issue only to have it fade or diminish before we bother to determine what, if anything, happened or changed.

Begun in 1969, this series of admissions studies has spanned a time of changing perceptions of minority student admissions. Early in the series, recruiting and selecting minority, particularly Black, students were the big issues. Publicity, demonstrations, turmoil, special programs, and money abounded. After an initial big splash, many schools felt their admissions task was largely over and they turned to other issues and concerns. The studies showed that as the enrollments of all students dropped or remained stable, money tightened, and governmental pressure subsided, there was a retrenchment of programs and a reduction in concern for minority admissions. Much recent attention in minority admissions has gone to concerns over reverse discrimination, lawsuits, and student retention. Beyond simply providing the basic data, the yearly surveys have emphasized many of these issues.

Past studies (Sedlacek & Brooks 1970; Sedlacek, Brooks & Mindus 1973; Sedlacek, Lewis & Brooks 1974; Sedlacek, Merritt & Brooks 1975; Sedlacek & Pelham 1976a, b) have shown a number of trends. New Black freshman enrollment rose slowly but steadily from 3 percent in 1969 to 6 percent in 1973, but then dropped to 5 percent in 1974 and 1975. The Middle States and Western area schools made the greatest gains from 1969 to 1975—6 to 13 percent for the Middle States and 5 to 9 percent for the Western—but also made the largest drop in 1974 and 1975 (Middle States to 9%; Western to 5%). The Southern region has made the most steady gains in Black freshman enrollment and was second only to the Middle States in 1975 in percentage of Black freshman enrollment, with 6 percent. Geographical areas are based on regional accrediting associations reported in Higher Education: Educational Directory of 1974-75 (U.S. Office of Education 1975).

Private schools have generally enrolled a greater percentage of Black students over the years. The schools most successful in enrolling Blacks have tended to emphasize academic programs (special or general), while the least successful schools have tended to emphasize money. Schools that were able to streamline red tape and admit Black students on the spot were also more successful in enrolling Blacks.

In 1975, non-Black minority enrollments of new freshmen were: Hispanic-Americans, 1.3 percent; other minorities, 1.3 percent; Asian-Americans, .8 percent, and American Indians, .3 percent. Western schools had the highest percentages of non-Black minorities (6% Asian-Americans; 5% Hispanic-Americans). Although some 24 percent of the schools reported some impact of tighter budgets on minority admissions programs in 1975, 40 percent reported some impact in 1974.

There are a number of trends suggesting the strong possibility that we may have reached a plateau or could have a decrease in minority admissions in future years. The number of special programs is down, as is the number of schools employing different admissions criteria for minority students. The use of recommendations has not changed and despite considerable evidence of problems in selecting Black students by traditional admissions criteria (Pfeifer & Sedlacek 1974; Sedlacek 1974; Sedlacek & Brooks 1976), most schools continue to employ grades an standardized tests.

The preset study was designed to re-survey the large, predominantly white universities in the United States in order to continue to monitor the trends and questions noted above. Particular emphasis was placed on the admissions of non-Black minorities and retention of minority students.


The admissions offices of 110 large, primarily white universities were sent a questionnaire concerning their minority admissions policies. Schools in the major athletic conferences and large independent institutions were included in the sample. If an individual state (including the District of Columbia) was not represented in the sampling method used, the largest school in the state was used.

The questionnaires were mailed out in November 1976: telephone follow-up procedures resulted in a total return of 103 questionnaires (94%). Of the 103 schools reporting, 85 (83%) were public and 18 (17%) were private. The questions below are directly from the survey.

1. What is your approximate undergraduate enrollment? About how many new freshmen matriculated this fall? About how many new undergraduate transfer students matriculated this fall?

Table 1 shows the range of enrollment, total enrollment, and freshman and transfer student enrollment by six geographical regions for schools in the sample. The median total enrollment was 13,936; median freshman enrollment was 2,561; median transfer enrollment was 1,196. Enrollments for 1976 were close to those of 1975, with median total enrollment somewhat smaller.

2. What is the approximate percentage of students enrolled for each racial/ethnic group?

Table 2 shows the median percentage of Black freshman enrollment by region. The overall percentage of Black freshman remained at 5 percent, where it has been since 1974 (5% enrollment was first achieved in 1972). The Middle States region showed a large drop and is now at 6 percent, which is what it was in 1969. The Western region increased to 7 percent, up from 5 percent in 1975, although the small number of schools in this region makes yearly fluctuation more expected. The North Central region dropped from 5 percent to 3 percent, what it was in 1969. The fact that the overall percentage remained at 5 percent while most regions actually reported lower percentages is due to rounding. The overall median was 4.67 percent. Regional fluctuations are less stable than the overall percentages.

In data not tabled, private schools (6%) indicated a higher median percentage of new Black freshman enrollment than did public schools (4%) in 1976. This difference has been: 1975—private 7 percent, public 4 percent; 1974—private 5 percent, public 4.5 percent; 1973—private 6 percent, public 7 percent; 1972—private 6 percent, public 5 percent; 1971 and 1970—private 6 percent, public4 percent. Private schools have enrolled a greater percentage of new Black freshmen than have public schools over the years of this survey.

Table 3 shows the median percentage of non-Black minority freshman enrollment by region for 1975 and 1976. The Western region remains the region enrolling the most non-Black minority freshmen, particularly Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. The Middle States region enrolls the most other minorities. Overall, non-Black enrollments are similar for 1975 and 1976. Percentages are reported to one decimal place, but readers are cautioned against over interpreting percentage differences based on small numbers.

Percentages of non-Black freshman enrollment for public and private schools in 1976 were: Hispanic-Americans—public .9 percent, private 1.7 percent; American Indians—public .2 percent, private .04 percent; Asian-Americans—public .5 percent, private 1.9 percent; other minority—public 1.5 percent, private 2.5 percent. Private schools tended to enroll a greater percentage of non-Black minority freshmen than did public schools.

Table 4 shows the median percentage of returning and transfer students for all minority student groups by type of institution. The purpose of requesting these data was to achieve an overview of the minority admissions and retention process. The categories are mutually exclusive.

Forty-one (40%) schools provided data on minority transfer students and 56 (54%) schools provided data on minority returning students. Overall percentages of returning and transfer students were very close to one another and closely paralleled the freshman percentages for each group, with the exception of Blacks. Blacks were 2.4 percent of the returning students, compared to 5 percent of the new freshmen.

Table 4 also shows that private schools have consistently enrolled a higher percentage of minority transfer and returning students for all minority groups except American Indian, where they were equal to the public schools. Because of the relatively smaller number of private schools reporting, the sample may be biased, although about the same relative percentage of public and private schools responded as were in the total sample.

3. Briefly describe your regular admissions criteria for new freshmen.

High school rank (69%), high school grade point average (62%), and standardized tests (SAT, 62% and ACT, 52%) remained the most common admissions criteria employed by schools. Other regular admissions criteria were CEEB achievement tests (10%), extracurricular activities (5%), interviews (2%), and predicted grade point average (2%). Eight percent had open admissions in 1976 (defined as requiring only a high school diploma or its equivalent for entry), which compares to 13 percent in 1975, 8 percent in 1974, 16 percent in 1973 and 1972, 12 percent in 1971 and 1970, and 10 percent in 1969.

The mean number of admissions criteria employed by all schools was 2.77 in

1976, 2.48 in 1975, 2.29 in 1974, 2.90 in 1973, 2.77 in 1972, 3.17 in 1971, 3.32 in 1970, and 2.05 in 1969. After a drop in 1974, schools have employed increasingly more criteria in 1975 and 1976. The use of recommendations dropped to 14 % in 1976, which continued the trend toward less use of recommendations in recent years: 19 percent in 1975 and 1974, 28 percent in 1973, 29 percent in 1972, 33 percent in 1971, 34 percent in 1970, and 13 percent in 1969.

3. Do you have special programs in which minorities, or mostly minorities are

Enrolled? If yes, briefly describe the criteria for admission to the program(s).

Thirty-eight percent of the schools had special programs in which mostly Blacks were enrolled, compared to 55 percent in 1975, 62 percent in 1974, 50 percent in 1973, 54 percent in 1972, 60 percent in 1971, 52 percent in 1970, and 48 percent in 1969. For special programs, relatively more weight was given to high school grade point average and rank and recommendations and less weight to standardized tests. While this follows the general pattern of past years, the use of recommendations among schools with special programs remained low: 10 percent in 1976, 8 percent in 1975, 7 percent in 1974, 24 percent in 1973, 43 percent in 1972, 23 percent in 1971, 38 percent in 1970, and 43 percent in 1969.

There continued to be little emphasis on high school grade average, SAT, and SAT in admitting Blacks to special programs in 1976. High school grade average was used by 12 percent of the schools with special programs in 1976, compared to 7 percent in 1975, 9 percent in 1974, 20 percent in 1973, 36 percent in 1972, 26 percent in 1971, 46 percent in 1970, and 55 percent in 1969. SAT was used by 7 percent in 1976 and 1975, 3 percent in 1974, 13 percent in 1973, 26 percent in 1972, 18 percent in 1971, 39 percent in 1970, and 57 percent in 1969. ACT was used by 7 percent in 1976, 3 percent in 1975, 4 percent in 1974, 9 percent in 1973, 12 percent in 1972, 9 percent in 1971, 5 percent in 1970, and 10 percent in 1969. Four percent of all schools having reported special programs in which primarily non-Black minorities were enrolled, making a total of 42 percent of the schools with some special programs in which mostly minority students were enrolled.

4. Aside from special programs, are Blacks admitted under the same criteria as are all

regular new freshmen? If no, briefly describe how the criteria differ.

Thirteen percent of the 103 schools used different regular admissions criteria for Blacks in 1976, compared to 9 percent in 1975, 13 percent in 1974, 14 percent in 1973, 26 percent in 1972, 20 percent in 1971, 36 percent in 1970, and 45 percent in 1969. “Different criteria of admission” was generally interpreted by admissions officers as referring to different applications or cut-off points of the same variables used in regular admissions. Private schools tended to use different admissions criteria more than public schools did in 1976 (20% vs. 11%) and in previous years (20% vs. 7% in 1975; 35% vs. 8% in 1974; 17% vs. 11% in 1973; 50% vs. 20% in 1972; 52% vs. 20% in 1971; and 75% vs. 26% in 1970 – the higher percentage being private in all cases).

Thirty-nine percent of the public schools and 55 percent of the private schools had special programs for Blacks in 1976. Both public and private schools had 55 percent in 1975; public 65 percent, private 50 percent in 1974; public 50 percent, private 50 percent in 1973; public 53 percent, private 55 percent I 1972; public 58 percent, private 67 percent in 1971; and public 54 percent, private 45 percent in 1970.


Black freshman enrollment in large universities was 3 percent in fall 1969 and only 5 percent in fall 1976, the level reached in 1972. The largest percentage of Black freshmen enrollment was 6 percent in fall 1973. The enrollment of non-Black minority freshmen was about the same in fall 1976 as it was in fall 1975 and ranged from .2 percent American Indians to 1.7 percent minorities other than Hispanic- or Asian-American.

The American Council on Education (ACE) (Astin, King & Richardson 1976) estimated a 6.9 percent Black freshman enrollment for 1976, which is up from 5.4 percent in 1975 and 3.4 percent in 1974. It should be noted that the ACE data represent Black freshmen in all universities and are based on a weighted sampling procedure rather than a census of nearly the entire population of large universities as was used in this study. Thus differences between the ACE data and those presented here could be due to many variables, but if there has been an increase in Black freshmen, it does not appear to be in the large universities.

The ACE figures on non-Black minorities are .7 percent Hispanic-Americans and American Indians, 1.4 percent Asian-Americans, and 1.2 percent other minorities. The largest discrepancy between data in the current study and ACE data are more American Indians and Asian-Americans reported in the ACE study. The higher Asian-American estimate in the ACE study was also presented in 1975 and, again, may be due to differences in the populations studied.

A number of variables seem to indicate a stability or possible downturn in the numbers of minority freshmen entering large universities; most trends are holding steady. The use of recommendations for general admission is down, the number of special programs for minorities is down sharply in public schools but steady in private schools, the average number of admissions criteria employed by both public and private schools is up, and the number of schools employing different admissions criteria for minorities has dropped in 1975 and 1976 – all of these factors show trends back to 1969 levels. The very large decrease in Black freshman enrollment in the Middle States region since 1973 (13% to 6%) could be important since that region ha been the trendsetter in the past.

The decrease in special programs can be linked to tighter state and federal budgets, which were also cited by schools as problems in 1974 and 1975 (Sedlacek & Pelham 1976a, b). As noted earlier, however, schools emphasizing programs and streamlined admissions procedures have done the best (Sedlacek, Merritt & Brooks 1975).

It appears that private schools have not only performed better than public schools in enrolling minority students, but they have done a better job of retaining them (see Table 4). For instance, while public schools have been enrolling an average of 4 or 5 percent new Black freshmen in recent years, only 2.5 percent of their returning 1976 students are Black. Private schools, however, have been enrolling an average of 6 or 7 percent new Black freshmen and have a 6.3 percent return rate for Blacks. Private schools report and average of 4 percent Black transfer students, compared to 2.4 percent for public schools. This same general pattern follows for non-Black minorities, although only two years of freshman data are available (see Table 3).

The concern over minority student retention has increased in recent years and there is growing evidence that nonacademic and noncognitive variables may play a more critical role in retention than grades and test scores do. For instance, Astin (1975) found that Black students were more likely to leave school for financial reasons or marriage when compared to white students. He also found that Blacks who were able to demonstrate knowledge gained in non-traditional ways through credit-by-examination were less likely to drop out than Blacks who did not take credit-by-examination. The increase in student retention associated with being able to demonstrate knowledge in nontraditional ways was more than twice as great for Blacks as for whites.

Sedlacek and Brooks (1976), in reviewing studies of nontraditional or noncognitive predictors useful in predicting minority student success or diagnosing potential problem areas, concluded that there were seven key noncognitive variables:

1. Positive self-concept: Confidence, strong self feeling, strength of character, determination, independence.

2. Understands and deals with racism: Realist, based on personal experience of racism. Committed to fighting to improve existing system. Not submissive to existing wrongs, nor hateful of society, nor a copout. Able to handle racist system. Asserts that the school has a role in fighting racism.

3. Realistic self-appraisal: Recognizes and accepts any academic or background deficiencies and works hard at self-development.

4. Prefers long-range goals to short-term or immediate needs: Understands and is willing to accept deferred gratification.

5. Availability of a strong support person: Has a person of strong influence available to provide advice.

6. Successful leadership experience: Has shown the ability to organize and influence others within one’s cultural and racial contexts.

7. Demonstrated community service: Has shown evidence of contributing to his or her community.

All of the above variables can be practically assessed by counselors or through interviews, counseling sessions, standardized measures, questionnaires, or application forms. The process of gathering such information should be compatible with existing programs without involving significant costs.

Many administrators and educators are concerned with the implications of any minority admissions policies for possible reverse discrimination lawsuits. The use of the seven noncognitive variables has been recommended by the Association of American Medical Colleges as a way to achieve equality and be prepared for possible lawsuits (Association of American Medical Colleges 1976; D’Costa et al. 1974). The basis of most reverse discrimination lawsuits has been the accusation of a white applicant of preferential admission based on race or ethnic group. If a school were to employ a systematic minority admissions procedure based on empirical studies that showed the procedure to be valid, it would be in a good position to avoid lawsuits.

We suggest that the seven noncognitive variables are also important for white applicants but the way we go about gathering our admissions information favors white applicants since we tend to get noncognitive information from them routinely. Tests and application forms tend to tap the lifestyles and culture of middle-class whites more than any other group. For instance, a minority applicant who has shown leadership in a community project rather than the biology club might not be as likely to write it on the application because of the way the question is worded and his or her lack of information on what is appropriate to include.

In admissions and retention, our short-term goal is equality and of information for use in making decisions and planning programs. That is, we want the most useful information we can obtain for each student. If we must work harder, or use different methods to secure information from some applicants, so be it. Ultimately, the consideration of good information on all applicants should result in an unbiased selection of students and an increase in minority students.


An eight-year monitoring of trends and issues in minority freshman admissions to large universities seems to indicate that we have reached a plateau or are on the brink of a decrease in the numbers of minority freshmen. Private schools appear to be doing a better job of retaining minority students than public schools do. This may be due in part to the fact that the number of special programs has remained fairly constant in private schools but has declined sharply in public schools. It is recommended that schools make more use of nontraditional or noncognitive variables in admitting minority students. Enough evidence currently exists for the use of some nontraditional measures by all schools. It appears that continued research, both local and national, on this topic would be useful. In particular, a study of the reasons for the relative success of private schools is appropriate.


Association of American Medical Colleges. Brief for Defendant, Bakke v. the Regents of The University of California. 18 Cal, 3rd 34, 134 Cal. Reptr. 680 (1976).

Astin A.W. Preventing Students from Dropping Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975.

Astin A.W.; King, M.K.; & Richardson, G.J. The American freshman: National norms for Fall, 1975. Los Angeles: American Council on Education, University of California, 1976.


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2005 William Sedlacek