ANNAPOLIS – Any college recruiter could see that Heather Austin was a prize.
As an African American high school senior in Riverdale, she earned a 4.25 grade point average, was student government president and participated in numerous clubs and sports. She would be the first in her family to go to college.
Harvard came calling. Universities in Florida, Virginia and Georgia courted her with scholarship money. But ultimately the University of Maryland at College Park won her with the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program.
Two years after she enrolled in 1993, the Banneker program, a four-year full scholarship for talented African Americans, was abolished. Courts said it discriminated against other racial groups, and so it was merged with the Francis Scott Key scholarship and is now awarded to gifted students without regard to race.
The court decision shook the campus, with dire predictions that the school’s minority population would plummet, but largely through policies in admissions and recruitment, the College Park campus remains diverse. The percentage of African American undergraduate students enrolled increased steadily since the Banneker decision, from 12.3 percent in 1994 to 14.2 percent in 1998.
However, some school administrators say without Banneker, it is more difficult to attract other African American students of the same caliber as Heather Austin.
Austin says now that being selected as a Banneker Scholar “was the most important in my decision-making because I was being targeted because I could achieve. It was 1993, and 11.9 percent of the student body was African American.
“It was such a great program because you are going into a community of intelligent black people with a network already set up,” the now 23-year-old master’s candidate at Maryland said.
Though enrollment numbers remain steady, recruiters say the Banneker decision still stings.
“It definitely hurts us and we lose out,” said Ronne Patrick, who works in the university’s admissions department. In 1995, the university accepted 66 percent of the African American students who applied, but by 1998, that figure was down to 58.2 percent, an indication that the quality of applicants may have declined.
“It is harder to recruit high-quality African American students. We are successful overall in enrolling black students, but I don’t know if we are as successful in getting the most competitive students.”
The University of Maryland lost its most potent weapon to attract the brightest African American students at a time when the state is publicly pondering ways to achieve greater national respect for its education programs.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed to give the school an additional $36 million and to give all parts of the statewide system greater autonomy in raising money and setting curriculum.
The proposal was based on recommendations from a 1998 task force that studied ways to propel Maryland to the level of public universities such as Berkeley, North Carolina and Michigan. The approach has drawn support from key legislative leaders, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Prince George’s, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.
Because the university battled to keep the Banneker program with such zeal that it earned nationwide publicity, the number of applications from black students increased slightly the year after it was abolished, Patrick said.
The admissions department also initiated several programs to attract black students.
Twice a year, the school hosts a multicultural college and career conference where officials provide parents and prospective students with general information about college that can be applied wherever they decide to go.
Recruiters also visit high schools in Maryland and other states with high populations of African Americans, and the school invites students on campus for overnight visits to give prospective students a feel for the school. There, members of African American and Latino organizations tell the recruits about their experiences on campus.
Whether or not the students choose Maryland, the goal is to establish a relationship.
Since there are no special financial enticements for African American students, recruiters try to emphasize the school’s other strengths. “We try to sell them on location, location, location,” Patrick said.
But the very admissions policies that allowed officials to maintain diversity are under attack in the courts. Last year, Robert Farmer, a white man, sued the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore in federal court, alleging that the medical school passed him over for admission in favor of less qualified blacks. The case is still pending. The medical school is a national leader in minority admissions; African Americans make up 17 percent of the student body.
Despite the success of the medical college, university officials have had less success attracting African American graduate students in other disciplines at the College Park campus. The percentage of African American graduate students enrolled at the campus has grown slowly, from 7.2 percent in 1994 to 7.6 percent in 1998.
Today, Heather Austin is one of those graduate students. After earning an English degree in 1997, she chose to stay at Maryland for her master’s degree in literature, despite offers from Harvard and Pennsylvania State universities. She still needs a doctorate to complete her dream of becoming an English professor, a situation that means another tough decision.
She thinks having all three degrees from the same university might make her less marketable for teaching jobs, so she will seriously consider other schools. But whatever other opportunities she might get, she knows Maryland will drive a hard bargain.
“Maryland is the best place for me to be,” she said.