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Challenge Three

Diverse Student Body

A Framework to Foster Diversity at Penn State: 1998–2003


Goal: Reduce intergroup disparities in enrollment, retention, and graduation rates through improvements in recruitment processes and retention initiatives

Goal: Develop and implement proactive strategies to recruit and retain nontraditional students

Penn State’s commitment to diversifying its student body is grounded in our historic land-grant mission—the education of the sons and daughters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Yet in an increasingly global society, Penn State has also reached beyond the borders of Pennsylvania in the effort to build a student body that is truly inclusive and diverse.

Desegregation directives have mandated focused efforts to recruit larger numbers of African American students. One of the broad measures used by the U.S. Department of Education to gauge equity of access is the proportion of the student population comprised by various groups compared to their representation in the Commonwealth’s college-going population. African Americans comprise less than 4 percent of the Penn State student body compared to over 10 percent of the college-going population. Using this measure, Hispanic/Latino Americans are also underrepresented, albeit to a lesser extent. The proportion of Asian American students at Penn State is greater than their representation in the pool of potential students. The representation of Native American students in both the Penn State and Pennsylvania populations is extremely small. In all cases, the enrollment trend is upward, with the strongest growth occurring among Asian American students, which is now the largest group of students of color at Penn State. The rapid rate of growth among Asian Americans has occurred without the type of focused recruitment efforts that have been employed to increase admissions of African American and Hispanic/Latino American students.

At the undergraduate level, principal responsibility for recruiting students from historically underrepresented groups is vested in the Minority Admissions and Community Affairs (MACA) unit of the Division of Enrollment Management. In addition to MACA’s centralized activities, there are three community recruitment centers located in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. These centers provide a visible presence in locales with large populations of students of color and strengthen recruitment efforts. Activities include high school visitations and sponsorship of bus trips for prospective minority students to University Park and other locations.

The work of MACA is also supported by the college directors of Minority Programs who, among other responsibilities, attend college fairs and work closely with students after applications have been submitted. These professionals are able to help prospective students define their academic interests more clearly and assist in identifying any available college-based financial aid.

The college directors have also played an active role in supporting Penn State’s graduate minority student recruitment efforts. The Directors identify prospective graduate students through trips to institutions and conferences and assist in arranging campus visits for prospective students. The recruitment activities of the college directors are coordinated through the Center for Minority Graduate Opportunities and Faculty Development in the Graduate School, but graduate admission decisions are made by individual departments rather than centrally, as in the case of undergraduate students.

Our greatest successes have been in the area of students seeking professional degrees, i.e., the MBA and the MD. These successes result, in part, from strong commitment by leadership and intensive support networks. These academic areas are also more attuned to changes in the workplace and society than other areas of graduate study.

A personalized linkage to the institution has been universally identified in the research literature as the key to positive retention outcomes for undergraduate students. Students who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups have consistently found it more difficult to establish this type of personalized connection. As is the case at most public colleges and universities, the retention and graduation rates of African American and Hispanic/Latino American students at Penn State are significantly lower than for other groups. Three strategies have been employed to address these disparities. First, the type of personalized connection described above is provided through the Multicultural Resource Center, the College Directors of Minority Programs, the Office of Veterans Programs, the Office for Disability Services, the Center for Adult Learner Services, as well as other offices. Where overlap exists it is largely intentional such that students can seek support from those offices in the best position to address a particular concern. The provision of "multiple points of entry" into the network of academic and personal support services provides a safety net which reduces the likelihood that individual students will become disconnected or slip between the cracks in the support system.

The second strategy involves identification of pedagogical and related barriers that contribute to retention and academic performance disparities. As an example, examination of course grades revealed that students of color were disproportionately failing calculus courses taught in large sections. This led to a pilot program offering calculus to some minority students in small sections, resulting in a significant improvement in student performance. As a consequence of this targeted initiative, instruction of calculus in small sections is now the experience of most students. This is an example of how pilot efforts initially targeted at specific groups have been extended to enhance retention for all students. New initiatives designed to enhance retention of all students will, of course, also improve the retention of at-risk students such as the new computer-based advising and information system.

The third strategy employed to reduce retention disparities is developing specialized forms of academic support to meet the specific needs of different constituencies. As an example, Academic Assistance Programs (AAP) offers special support, including developmental courses, to students from educational and/or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The CAMP program provides special support for students from migrant farm-worker backgrounds. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bunton-Waller Fellows program provides a residentially-based comprehensive support network for students with outstanding academic potential.

Because graduate study is much more of an individualized process, there is a more limited role for centralized retention initiatives. However, the Center for Minority Graduate Opportunities and Faculty Development does offer a variety of services including: assistance in identifying mentors, professional development workshops, support for participation in professional conferences, and counseling and advising services.

Penn State’s long-term goals of diversifying its undergraduate and graduate student bodies will require an increasing involvement in early intervention programs to increase the pool of prospective students. Our major efforts have focused on middle-school students through the Penn State Educational Partnership Program (PEPP), which serves students in Erie, McKeesport, Reading, and most recently Philadelphia. PEPP is a collaboration between Penn State and the local school districts aimed at helping disadvantaged students develop the necessary skills and aspirations to attend a college or university. It is primarily an after-school program in which tutorial and other support services are provided on a one-on-one basis. In addition, the "After School Family Education Program," operated through Educational Equity serves students in grades 1-8 in three school districts in Beaver County. Over fifty Penn State programs are operated at various locations each summer serving pre-college students of different ages, many of which are funded partially through grants from the Equal Opportunity Planning Committee. There is a need to coordinate the transition of students between Penn State University programs as they progress through middle and secondary school. Such coordination can link students to Penn State throughout their secondary education, thereby improving our recruitment (and retention) outcomes.

Similar efforts are needed to increase the pool of graduate students. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation/Center for Undergraduate Opportunities-Summer Research Opportunities Program and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program are our most extensive efforts in this area.

While the recruitment, retention, and pool-building initiatives described above are impressive, as noted previously, the measurable enrollment outcomes do not compare well with our CIC counterparts. Consequently, every opportunity must be explored to improve our results. Recruitment and retention efforts will become more complicated with the reorganization of the Commonwealth Educational System. If adequate student services will not be available at all locations, then students from underrepresented groups should be directed only to locations with requisite academic and personal support structures. To make detailed judgments of this type will require more sophisticated analyses of factors affecting student retention/attrition.

New and continuing challenges will also be faced in the recruitment of graduate students from underrepresented groups and international students. The Center for Minority Graduate Opportunities and Faculty Development currently uses information on race and ethnicity from formal Graduate School applications to identify prospective candidates from underrepresented groups, and works with departments and college minority coordinators to recruit those applicants. The Graduate School will continue to have access to this information and pursue this approach in the new decentralized admissions process. However, independent of the particular institutional admissions model, Internet technology has resulted in an increasing use of home pages by departments and programs to engage in prescreening, using some form of preliminary application before complete application packages are provided to prospective students. These preliminary reviews of credentials (used most generally in the case of international applicants, but spreading to the wider pool of prospective students) create a risk that students from underrepresented groups, international students, and students with disabilities will be discouraged from applying on the basis of incomplete information that does not fully reflect the student’s capabilities. Most of these preliminary applications do not request information about race, ethnicity, or any disabilities of the applicant. Although these prescreening processes have the potential to save time and unnecessary expense for both programs and prospective students, great care must be taken to ensure that such processes are not exclusionary.

The successful recruitment of graduate students from underrepresented groups is increasingly competitive, and will not occur in the absence of a concerted and coordinated effort by all units and personnel involved including departmental faculty and administrators, the College minority coordinators, and the Graduate School. The recruitment and retention of greater numbers of minority faculty is also essential to the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups, and is often regarded by prospective students as an indication of the institution’s commitment to educational equity.

As we look toward the dawn of a new century, our horizons must be broadened to recruit students actively from additional underrepresented groups including adult learners, veterans, students with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. As our connections to the international community increase, we must move toward a corresponding increase in the numbers of matriculated international undergraduate students, as well as in the numbers of our Pennsylvania and U.S. students who study abroad. A more diverse student body, both nationally and internationally, will mean a more competitive Penn State, helping to ensure employers that we are cognizant of their needs.

Even as the University broadens the boundaries of its student body, however, it is imperative to maintain a continued commitment to the recruitment of historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. There must be a focus on ensuring diverse enrollments in nonresidential course offerings through Continuing and Distance Education, as well as the traditional resident education focus. Future growth in this area is likely to be much larger than in resident instruction.

Special attention must be focused on improving the delivery of services that will reduce intergroup retention and graduation rate disparities. Undergraduate Education and Educational Equity have launched a new initiative to examine existing retention programs and develop strategies to achieve better coordination and results.

The action plan associated with the goal of recruiting and retaining a diverse student body is indicated in the following text.


Goal: Reduce intergroup disparities in enrollment, retention, and graduation rates through improvements in recruitment processes and retention initiatives

Goal: Develop and implement proactive strategies to recruit and retain nontraditional students


  • Review the impact of recruitment and retention programs funded through the Equal Opportunity Planning Committee and make recommendations for future initiatives
  • Monitor and ensure compliance with commitments related to Pennsylvania’s desegregation mandates


  • Review effectiveness of pre-college student programs and develop strategies to coordinate student transitions between PSU programs


  • Review the organization and effectiveness of current retention initiatives; Develop and implement improved procedures


  • Develop a comprehensive retention plan to reduce intergroup retention rate disparities


  • Monitor and report the effect of pre-application screening on enrollments of minority, disabled, and international students


  • Review the organization and effectiveness of existing efforts to recruit students from underrepresented groups; Improve and expand efforts as needed


  • Develop recruitment plans and an array of programs that will ensure diverse representation