Breana Taylor wasn’t worried that her skin color would be a problem when she started at Colorado College as a freshman just a few weeks ago.
The Little Rock, Arkansas native had gone to a predominantly black high school in a community where she felt welcome and safe. CC was different, but the hiking, biking and outdoorsy nature of Colorado worried her more than her race.
“My high school was more black than my middle and elementary school,” said Taylor. “Coming here was not something I had worried about, even despite it being more white. It wasn’t too different.”
Taylor is one of many diverse students who have joined the Colorado College community as part of incoming freshman class. Twenty-seven percent of the new students on campus identify themselves as being part of an American ethnic minority, the result of years of purposeful recruitment of diverse — specifically black — students.
There has never been such a diverse class at Colorado College, ever.
“Diversity has been a push for us, and certainly domestic diversity, students of color, for 10 years,” said Mark Hatch, Vice President for Enrollment. “Under [former] president Dick Celeste, it was a big part of his Vision 2010 for the college.”
After Celeste left CC, President Jill Tiefenthaler wanted to make sure the goal of diversity continued.
“Building the strongest student body, by attracting bright and curious students, is a clear goal each and every year,” said Tiefenthaler. “In fact, it is one of the most important things that we do at CC. Last year, we worried that we were not reaching all potential audiences, so we extended our reach to new high schools, cities and countries.”
The deliberate outreach resulted in the largest and most selective applicant pool in the college’s history, consisting of seven percent international students.
The steep increase in diversity and applicants raises the question — why now?
In the early part of the decade, CC made steady improvement in increasing diversity from 12 percent to about 18 percent but then plateaued, said Hatch.
“One of the things to note about 2009, 2010 and maybe even into 2011 were that they were recession years,” said Hatch. “Things were pretty scary, not just on this campus but in other campuses in the nation and the world.”
CC’s endowment fell from over $500 million in 2008-2009 to roughly $375 million during the recession, according to Hatch.
“Our recruitment strategies, our outreach strategies, certainly in 2009 and 2010, were driven in part by that it wasn’t business as usual anymore. Are families going to walk away from $50,000 a year?”
Through the recession, CC became even more dependent on tuition. The school was always committed to bringing in a talented and diverse student body; however, in those years admissions had to be clear it would make its class hit the enrollment target and reach the tuition levels necessary to sustain the enterprise.
“President Celeste and I had a lot of conversations about the low number of black, African American students on campus,” said Hatch. “…The biggest gain has been in black students and that was a very deliberate gain by us through outreach to community organizations and to work with target high schools to see if we could move that needle.”
The most successful pockets for recruiting new black students were in Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles, according to Hatch. Organizations such as Arkansas Commitment, which helped Briana Taylor and two other students become members of the incoming class, are what the office relies upon most to help increase black diversity at CC.
There were typically 9-13 black students in every incoming class. This year there are over 30.
“I want to be very clear; we improved the quality of our class as we also improved the diversity,” said Hatch. “These are great fits for Colorado College and based on test scores, based on class rank and GPA this is a class that is stronger than previous classes.”
Hatch feels the importance of having a diverse class is crucial.
“Beyond those what I would call simple and basic communications skills, in today’s age, if you can’t communicate across cultures and continents I don’t think your liberal arts education is going to take you very far,” said Hatch. “The world is getting to be a much smaller place.”
President Tiefenthaler agrees.
“At Colorado College, students are one of our strongest assets,” said Tiefenthaler. “Academic excellence requires attracting the brightest and most interesting and talented students from around the world. We won’t achieve that goal unless we are inclusive and a desirable destination for students from all races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, experiences and places.”
The new diversity is something that Roger Smith, Director of the Office of Minority and International Students, sees as an incredible opportunity for CC.
“For me, when I think about a campus about becoming more diverse, I think specifically about the value of socializing with someone of a different racial group or gender identity,” said Smith. “… I think everybody benefits.”
Not only will diversity on campus create overall awareness, but also racial understanding, an inclusive community, academic development, and satisfaction with college, according to Smith.
“I am not sure [how the diversity will change campus] but it is always exciting to see how new students shape their college,” said Tiefenthaler. “It happens each and every year at any college as new generations of students bring their own ideas, experiences, and ambitions. That constant change is what makes the academic environment so dynamic and exciting.”
The increase in diversity is something that Smith thinks will allow minority students who have already begun their experience at CC to feel more comfortable. He referenced a recent meeting with a minority student who expressed their excitement over the change in the student population.
“Knowing that there institutionalized commitment to diversifying the campus, the student felt a great sense of community on campus in terms of the campus looking and feeling differently than the previous year,” he said.
Colorado College has had its share of intolerant behavior in recent years, including members of the community wearing blackface, homophobic slurs on dorm doors and even swastikas carved into Mathias hallways last year.
At the Black Student Union meeting Wednesday night, a group of about 20 students, both black and white, ended their gathering with a round of “Oh no you didn’t.”
Students began recounting racism they had encountered over their summer at their jobs, on trips and even close to home. While everyone laughed at the intolerance and ignorance of those uncomfortable situations, there was unease in the air.
The excitement over the increased number of students belonging to American ethnic minorities was the talk of the night, however.
“I think [the diversity] will commit everyone to the issues of race at the college,” said Porschae Chitmon, co-chair of the Black Student Union. “I think [the diversity] is terrific and it’s great to see Jill [Tiefenthaler] taking initiative.”
Increasing diversity at CC is something that Mark Hatch believes will increase the college’s relationship with Colorado Springs and the country, referencing the viewpoint in some places that people think “everybody who goes to CC is rich and drives a fancy car.”
“To the extent that we can change that perception or misperception of CC, that’s good for CC,” said Hatch. “But that’s not why we do it. We do it because it makes the [student’s] experience richer.”
In a national higher education climate where online learning and large lecture halls are the norm, the block plan is a high-stakes way of learning that necessitates complex discussion with people from different backgrounds.
“There are socio-economic issues at CC that this incoming class didn’t solve,” said Hatch. “I think that’s one of the most profound things that we will face with this next strategic plan.”
If CC can sustain the percentage of American ethnic minorities and international students, the college will not be the most diverse of similar schools of its caliber and size, said Hatch. It would, however, put the tiny liberal arts college well above the median.
“…Attracting the intellectually curious and bright students that are the right fit for CC’s engaging and rigorous education is among the most important work we do each and every year,” said Tiefenthaler. “So, yes, continuing to extend CC’s reach and grow our applicant pool is a trend that will continue on for the future.”