URBANA, Ill. (AP) _ The University of Illinois set out in 1968 to boost its enrollment of black students at the Urbana-Champaign campus under a plan known as Project 500.

For years, it worked, adding a steady stream of black students to the downstate campus, but the university hasn’t hit the 500 number in six years, according to reporting in The News-Gazette in Champaign (‘Prescription for disaster’).

This fall the state’s flagship public university added 356 black students, and the percentage of the 43,603 students on campus who are black is 4.87 percent. That’s far less than the percentage of Illinois’ population that is black, 14.7 percent.

“We’re the land-grant university. I think at least the university should represent the state of Illinois,” said Ruby Mendenhall, a sociology and African-American Studies professor at the university.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the fall in black enrollment is “unacceptable to everyone at the university who values diversity.”

“We don’t have specific targets for underrepresented students, but we’re working hard to increase our outreach and recruiting efforts to African-American students,” Kaler said.

The university blames in part a larger trend of falling yield, the term the university uses for accepted students who enroll.

Cost is also a factor, some say. Four years at the Urbana-Champaign campus including tuition, housing and other expenses now cost more than $100,000.

But some critics say that the decreases in state support that have driven tuition increases also have pushed the university to focus on students who pay more when they enroll.

“They’re preoccupied with bringing in international students at the expense of the historically disadvantaged or underrepresented,” said Terry Townsend, who is black and graduated from the university decades ago. “They’re wasting away the gains we made.”

University Trustee James Montgomery sees multiple factors at work.

Montgomery, who is black, graduated from the university in 1953 and received his law degree in 1956.

He said many students in the Chicago area and a few other parts of the state don’t get the kind of education that allows them to qualify for the university. For those who do qualify, the university doesn’t have enough financial aid to offer, he said.

“If we want to try and get qualified African-American students who go to school in Illinois to attend the University of Illinois, we have to find a way to deal with the tuition problem,” he said.

Urbana-Champaign campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the university is trying to work on getting black students to campus and on giving them a chance to succeed.

“We are looking to see what we need to do not only in admissions, but in terms of mentoring and advising once they get here,” Wise said, adding that having to work can be distracting for students “trying to do this on a shoestring.”


Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com