This story first appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.
Ten years ago, Edgewood College officials struggled to bring minorities to the small liberal arts college.
Only one student showed up for the Madison school's first minority recruitment day in 2000. The next fall, only 11 students of color were part of the roughly 300-student freshman class.
But over the past decade that has changed. In the fall, 55 minorities were part of Edgewood College's freshman class, almost 20 percent of the total.
Ariana Silva, a Mexican-American freshman from Madison, said she was attracted to Edgewood for its small size and proximity to home, but diversity also was a factor.
"It was pretty important to realize, yes, there are people of color here at Edgewood," Silva said.
It remains to be seen whether Edgewood will be able to maintain that level of diversity and translate it into high graduation rates. Currently, the graduation rate among minorities — categorized as black, Latino, Asian or Native American — still lags behind the overall student body. About 47 percent of minorities stayed on or graduated within six years, compared with 54 percent overall.
"I think we have come a long way in more reflecting the community we serve," said Scott Flanagan, executive vice president. "And we still have a long way to go."
Focus on scholarships
Community and educational leaders say Madison minority families are taking note of Edgewood's efforts.
"I have so many more students now coming to talk to me as a counselor, saying, 'Hey, can you help me sign up for Edgewood?'" said Daniela Porro, a bilingual counselor at La Follette High School. "Kids are actually applying. A lot more. It's been a significant increase."
Edgewood College officials say the key has been more outreach at Madison area high schools, specifically through its Community Scholars Award. In its fifth year, the four-year, full-tuition scholarship is given to three freshmen each year who demonstrate financial need, reside in Dane County and show a commitment to community service.
In all, almost 60 percent of students at Edgewood are from Dane County, while 90 percent are from Wisconsin.
At a pre-college event at La Follette on Wednesday, Edgewood College admissions counselor Amelia Cook spoke in Spanish to a group of students in the AVID/TOPS program, a college preparatory program for low-income and minority students.
Tuition at Edgewood is $23,740 — and room and board is an additional $8,476 — but Cook focused on the availability of scholarships for students who are not legally in the U.S. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid or in-state tuition at University of Wisconsin System campuses, but many of Edgewood's scholarships are available to anyone.
That means it can be a more affordable choice than a public school for some students.
"I know working with families that money is the biggest obstacle toward coming to college," she told the group. "Twenty-four thousand dollars, that's where tuition starts. Now, that's not probably what you're going to pay, but that's the reality."
Data show Edgewood is doing a better job at retaining minorities. Of students of color who started in 2010, 91 percent stayed for their sophomore year compared with 55 percent in 2001. Officials expect better graduation rates, too.
Edgewood College's total percentage of minorities is now about 15 percent of its 1,866 undergraduates. That's on par with UW-Madison, where it's about 14.5 percent out of about 28,700 undergrads.
Flanagan said Edgewood is taking a more institutional approach to diversity. Rather than just focusing on student recruitment, the college also told each department on campus to develop a plan to attract more minority faculty and staff or improve the cultural competency of people already working there, he said.
Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Kaleem Caire said Edgewood contacted him to help expand its search for a new accounting professor, for example.
"They have key people over there who work for them who are really engaged in the community, really engaged," he said. "I think it helps them."
Dora E. Zuniga, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County and mom to Edgewood freshman Ariana Silva, said she knows several minority students who enrolled at Edgewood because they didn't get into UW-Madison, and flourished there.
"You have the best of both worlds," she said. "The kids who end up at Edgewood, because the place down the road doesn't take them, actually it's a great service to them because they're not going to get lost."
Daniel Flores-Valdez, a senior at La Follette, is one of the recipients of the Community Scholars Award. He said getting his tuition paid is a big opportunity, but he also wants to be on a campus where he can interact with people from different backgrounds.
On campus for an "Admitted Students Day" last month, he said he sees some room for improvement.
"I can see diversity," Flores-Valdez said, "But I'd like to see more."