HOUSTON — The message is posted on signs and banners all over the University of Houston: Welcome to the Powerhouse.
It's meant to highlight the school's massive growth. Enrollment and faculty research expenditures are breaking university records. New buildings are sprouting up. And the Cougars have the top-ranked football team in the state.
But one group has missed that rising tide. The number of black undergraduates at UH is down significantly this decade. From the 2009-10 school year to 2015-16, black undergraduate enrollment declined by 745 students to 3,644, according to university numbers. Total undergraduate enrollment has gone the other direction, climbing by more than 5,400 to 34,716.
That's a 17 percent drop in black students at the same time as an 18 percent rise in students overall — a troubling trend to some in the historically black neighborhood that UH calls home.
"Students shouldn't be shut out of the university that is right here in their backyard," said state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston. "For it to be a real international university like we have to be, everyone has to be involved."
UH officials agree. They say they aren't sure what caused the decline, but they add that they are working hard to reverse it. Last year, the number of black students increased slightly, they noted, although it grew at a slower rate than overall university undergraduate enrollment. And school officials say they are stepping up their recruitment of black high schools in the city.
"We weren't really paying close attention to the data, as close as we are now," said Paula Myrick Short, provost for the university. "Admissions was kind of just who knocked on the door."
Overall, UH remains proud of its minority enrollment. It often notes that it is the country's second-most diverse major research university. Hispanic students make up 32 percent of the undergraduate population. Black students make up 10 percent. (They made up 15 percent in 2009-10.)
That's in large part because the university draws most of its students from in and around Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Black residents make up almost one-quarter of the city, U.S. Census numbers say. The nearest public high school to UH, Yates, is more than 90 percent black.
But UH and its surrounding neighborhood have changed in recent years. UH's part of town, known as the Third Ward, saw its share of black residents drop from 79 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2012, according to the city.
Meanwhile, UH has become more selective as it strives to be a nationally competitive, top-tier research university. Before the 2009-10 school year, a student would need an SAT score below 970 to be in the bottom quartile of incoming freshmen. By 2015-16, that number had climbed to 1050.
Many top-tier, nationally competitive research universities have diversity issues. That's true in Texas, where the two most prestigious public universities — the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University — each have far smaller proportions of black and Hispanic students than UH. In Texas, black students are more likely to attend struggling K-12 schools than white and Asian students. And students who attend those schools are more likely to struggle on their SATs.
As black enrollment has dropped, the surrounding community has noticed. In a series of increasingly frustrated letters to UH President Renu Khator in 2014 and 2015, Miles urged UH to address a list of issues related to diversity. He said the school needed to increase the number of black students, raise the graduation rates for those students and grow the number of black-owned businesses that work on campus projects through its historically underutilized business, or HUB, program.
“Upon your arrival to the university, the HUB earnings and percentages for African Americans were in a strong position as evidenced by over $12.2 million in total dollars that was spent with African American HUB vendors,” Miles wrote in one 2015 letter, which was obtained through an open records request. “However, for the last two years your African American HUB contracting is almost non-existent at a shameful and paltry $4.7 million.”
Miles, who in January will take over the state Senate seat that represents much of south Houston, received several responses saying that the university is working to address those issues. In an interview, Miles said he wants to see diversity as a top priority.
“The focus at the university needs to be to the same degree as the efforts to be in a big football league and become a tier one university,” Miles said. “We need to make sure that the university is being inclusive of all races.”
Working to change
School officials were careful not to blame the decline on UH's rise in stature. Instead, they said the school simply wasn't as focused on the issue of maintaining diversity a few years ago as it is now.
"We are doing the kinds of things that were not being done in 2008 and 2009 and even 2011," said Short, the provost. "And we are already seeing results."
In recent years, UH has hired an administrator who focuses solely on recruiting more businesses owned by women and minorities. It has also hired a multicultural admissions counselor, who emphasizes recruiting black students. The university has partnered with community organizations, local school districts and churches to build relationships with black communities. And it hosts events focused on attracting black and minority high schoolers.
“We have adopted a very very intentional and very aggressive agenda to increase our African-American students,” Short said.
The efforts have produced modest success so far. The decline in black students appears to have halted, though the share of students hasn't kept up with overall enrollment growth.
This school year, according to preliminary enrollment estimates, the number of black freshmen who enrolled grew by five to 414. The university is also bringing in more black transfer students. That number climbed by 44 to 590 this year.
Meanwhile, race has been a big topic on campus this year.
In July, the student body vice president provoked rage among some students when she posted a message on Facebook that in part said, “Forget #blacklivesmatter.” The university’s student-run government association suspended her, sparking outrage among another segment of campus.
The dustup prompted many of the black student groups to band together to call for change, said Wesley Okereke, president of the school’s NAACP chapter. Students have since met with school administrators and called for more diversity among tenured faculty and more interaction among students of different races in student organizations.
“Our school is well known for our diversity, but at the same time there is no inclusion,” Okereke said.
School officials were receptive to their ideas, he said. But increasing black enrollment wasn’t something the students brought up, he said.
“I didn’t really notice much of a decline because there [are] not many of us to begin with,” he said.
Read more of the Tribune's coverage of diversity in Texas higher education:
- The Top 10 Percent Rule promises admission to public universities who graduate near the top of their high school classes. But students from poorer schools take advantage at a much lesser rate.
- At Texas A&M, diversity has increased without affirmative action.
- Texas' Top 10 Percent Rule could be on the chopping block next year.
Disclosure: The University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.