As a predominantly white institution, JMU has always admitted over 70% white students.
Efforts by Executive Director of Faculty Access and Inclusion David Owusu-Ansah and executive director of campus and community access and inclusion, Arthur Dean, are being put in place to admit and attract students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
But a diverse student body is affected by more than just university efforts; financial aid, changing demographics and virtual admissions visits also play a major role in recruiting a more diverse population.
Having virtual admission visits — due to COVID-19 — is helping reach a wider pool of applicants, Dean said. The university has seen an overall increase in attendance at these visits, as well as an increase in where students are coming from. While these sessions typically average anywhere between 1,100 to 1,200 students, in February alone, 1,800 students from all over the country visited virtually, a key effort in diversifying the student body.
“The key challenge we face is turning those who apply — turning those who are admitted — to come to JMU,” Dean said. “We’re not very much in a fluid campus … based on the state of Virginia’s allocation for Pell Grant money.”
A Pell Grant is a form of financial aid the U.S. government provides that doesn’t need to be repaid, which makes it a major key to recruitment.
Because JMU doesn’t receive a high level of aid, Dean said, a majority of students, regardless of race, come from families with financial means and resources to successfully attend JMU. With JMU’s Pell Grant range, JMU has a limited number of resources that doesn’t allow admission to award majority first-generation and underrepresented students with a great financial aid package.
“So, it’s not that we are not making any efforts,” Owusu-Ansah said. “It’s that the money coming in — we don’t control that. It comes from a different source, so we don’t want people to get the wrong impression that we intentionally do not want to give money to students.”
Grant money comes from the federal government but depends on the cost of attendance at JMU and students’ financial need. At JMU, fewer students receive aid but the ones who do get more than average. This is likely because students attending JMU are wealthier and need less aid. This makes it a challenge to increase growth among minority populations.
Since 2010, JMU’s student body has become more diverse, according to demographic figures from the university. In 2010 Hispanic undergraduates made up 3% of the total population, and in 2020, that number has risen to 7%, showing the largest jump of all ethnicities. From 2010 to 2020, the Black undergraduate population has only grown from 3.9% to 4.9% and the Asian population has grown from 4.2% to 4.7%.
Owusu-Ansah and Dean said admissions has been reaching out to Harrisonburg communities and professor-in-residence program schools to attract underrepresented communities. He added that the Hispanic community is increasing in Virginia, which might also be a factor in the increase in Hispanic students during the last decade. Hispanic residents in Virginia made up around 8% of the total population in 2010, and now make up 9.37% in 2021, according to census data.
“There have been some key programs you can point to like professor residence, other places where JMU is now visible in the schools in places where we’ve not been as visible in the past,” Dean said. “You’re also seeing the best marketing and recruitment effort in how other students recruit other students to JMU.”
But Dean said JMU admissions wasn’t targeting a specific group and that its efforts were to make JMU readily accessible for all students.
In addition to professor-in-residence programs in Harrisonburg, which has a growing Hispanic population, he said student recruitment has expanded and has seen the greatest growth in Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach, some of the most diverse areas of the state.
“That’s kind of going to be the lion’s share of our applicant pool and those who will come at this time,” Dean said. “And so that we can see where the population growth has happened in those areas by race and how do we then make sure we’re visible for those racial populations to look at us as an opportunity to come into school.”
Expanding recruitment efforts don’t mean that admissions isn’t reducing standards, Owusu-Ansah said. JMU still admits students based on high performance, and as a result, when ethnic and racial diversity increases among the student population, admissions standards don’t change.
“What we are doing is trying to create an environment where our diverse students will feel comfortable, an environment that actually is welcoming, because the pressure that is not seen as academic actually has academic impact,” Owusu-Ansah said. “So, social segregation and other kind of stuff need to be eliminated, so that our students can perform at their best.”
In fact, Dean and Owusu-Ansah’s primary job in the last 14 years is to ensure students with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds felt welcome on campus through recruitment, retention and community efforts.
Dean said the No. 1 aspect to fostering a welcoming community is to knock down barriers that don’t allow information to flow to all populations and segments of the campus community. He and Owusu-Ansah have created workshop events, programs, meetings, coordination support and have been intimately involved in the process.
Dean said this is especially important considering that Virginia alone in the next decade will see a large, diverse student body graduating from high school with a larger socio-economic strata. This will result in students with more financial need, and Dean expects financial-aid packages with Pell grants and student loans to increase.
“How would having students come that might not have the same type of familiar family support?” Dean said. “So, we’re going to have to navigate how we help students integrate into JMU that don’t have [families] who went to college ahead of them.”
With a large, diverse student body graduating from high school, Dean predicted JMU’s student body will become more diverse within the next 10 years. He said there aren’t major economic differences across racial groups at JMU, but added that they’ll still have students looking for a robust curriculum from diverse faculty.
“Ten years from now, those who replace us and come up with new ideas and new energy are going to think that we did very little, and that they want to do something more,” Owusu-Ansah said. “So, if I’m still around and I come to JMU’s campus, I would like to see not only a greater diversity of students, because that is going to happen whether we like it or not, but greater faculty diversity that can actually engage our students in a more meaningful and diverse ways. So, that’s my vision and my hope.”
Kailey Cheng is a senior media arts and design and writing, rhetoric and technical communication double major. Contact Kailey at email@example.com.