As a white student at a school that has traditionally served African-Americans, Miles Stiles said there is no mystery to why he enrolled at Texas Southern University.
“It was close. It was inexpensive,” he said. “It was a practical decision.”
Race, he said, “wasn't a huge issue for me.”
Along with other historically black universities around the country, TSU is becoming more diverse, both by design — President John Rudley is aggressively recruiting Latino high school students — and as a reflection of the changing communities around them.
And like Stiles, a third-year law student at TSU, Rudley and other leaders of the schools are driven by practicality. Failure to tap into the state's shifting demographics could cause their enrollments to plummet.
“If we want to stay alive, we have to go where the market is going,” said Dwayne Ashley, president and chief executive officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
The fund recently reported that enrollment of nonblack students of color has grown 64 percent over the past 20 years at its member schools, which include TSU and Prairie View A&M University.
Most of the schools are still predominantly African-American, but the percentages of Hispanic and Asian students, especially, are rising rapidly. Within certain programs, the balance already has shifted.
About 85 percent of TSU's overall enrollment is African-American, but that drops to 54 percent in the law school and 43 percent in the pharmacy program.
The law school has been named the most diverse in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
Students say diversity matters in the classroom.
“You can read a case and your background gives you one perspective,” said Hasan Mack, 26, a third-year law student from Pearland who is African-American. “Someone else's background gives them something different. In law school, that's a good thing.”
Dannye Holley, interim dean of TSU's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said it's no surprise the law school and other graduate programs have led the way toward diversity.
All nine Texas law schools turn away qualified students, so some students apply to multiple schools as a safety net. The diversity itself is a draw for others, Holley said.
Jorge Lopez, 24, of Baytown applied to all three Houston law schools after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin.
He was wait-listed at the University of Houston and the South Texas College of Law but was undecided about TSU, which had offered him a spot.
A seminar for potential students changed his mind.
“I really fell in love with the professors,” Lopez said.
The diversity, too.
“I wanted to go somewhere that would help me understand the backgrounds of folks — racial, ethnic, socioeconomic,” he said. “It's important to know who your clients will be.”
Still, the shift has not been painless. Some African-American students seek a historically black school for the tradition and community. Prairie View President George Wright said he encountered resistance as he pushed to increase nonblack enrollment after arriving on campus in 2003.
But he persisted.
“Because we are a group of people who were once denied access, we should be especially sensitive to other minorities,” Wright said. “If there are people who need a second chance, there is Prairie View.”
Prairie View is relatively isolated in Waller County, home to about 36,000 people. The county is now about 26 percent African-American and 23 percent Hispanic, according to 2007 Census data.
TSU, in Houston's Third Ward, is surrounded by even more change — Houston's population is 42.7 percent Hispanic, 27.4 percent white, 23.4 percent black and 5.4 percent Asian, according to 2008 census figures.
Although Rudley and Wright say their schools are unlikely to ever be that diverse, today's shifting enrollments may be just the beginning.
But building the numbers will take work, Rudley said.
“When I talk to Hispanic students, they tell me, ‘You have to make the institution welcoming to Hispanic and Latino students.' ”
Some of that may be as simple as changing marketing materials to reflect a more diverse student body. Other issues are more complex. TSU's reputation suffered as periodic scandals rocked the school, and Rudley has tried to restore that, as well as resolving financial and accreditation issues since taking office last year.
“Many Latino and white students, they don't know the quality of the programs we have,” he said.
The school still serves students who, for a variety of reasons, can't attend the state's more prestigious flagships.
“We'll always be relevant, because there always will be underserved students,” Rudley said. “But we're broadening our mission.”
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