The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week on whether affirmative action in higher education should remain. The court has previously ruled to allow public universities to consider race as part of the admissions process. At universities in Idaho test scores and grade point averages are the main criteria used to admit students: race is not considered.
“We really are looking for the best and brightest students regardless of race,” says Cezar Mesquita who directs admissions at the University of Idaho. He says promoting diversity in the student body is a priority. That’s echoed by his counterparts at Boise State and Idaho State. But Idaho’s university campuses don't reflect the state’s ethnic makeup.
Boise State senior Mario, waits in the student union building for a student he's supposed to tutor. Mario says it’s important to talk about racial issues but he knows people who have been harassed for doing so. That’s why he asked that we don’t use his last name. He was bullied as a kid because he is Hispanic and he’s worried about drawing negative attention for his opinion on affirmative action.
“Consider race as part of the admissions process,” Mario says. “But it can’t be like the sole factor. You know, how is this student going to be a benefit to the university, how is this student going to represent the university?”
Mario says a racially diverse campus benefits everyone by broadening the exchange of ideas. As a Latino he feels underrepresented, sometimes even unwelcome. He recalls a class where students talked about their career paths. Someone joked that he wouldn’t have one as an illegal immigrant, which he isn’t. Mario’s from Oregon.
“Who are you to assume, like my own immigration status,” he says. “So it seemed to send the message like what are you doing here or like why are you aspiring to some sort of professional field.”
Idaho’s population is close to 12 percent Hispanic. Seven percent of Boise State’s student body last year was Hispanic. At the University of Idaho and Idaho State it’s even smaller.
U of I Admissions director Cezar Mesquita says even though they don’t consider race in admissions, the school is trying to attract more Latino students by recruiting in heavily Latino parts of the state.
“We go to Twin Falls, we go out toward the Pocatello area, Nampa,” he says. “To reach out to those populations and talk to them about the college admissions process as well as financial aid.”
Mesquita says they have similar efforts at high schools on and near the state’s Indian reservations. Native American students at the U of I and Boise State are also underrepresented compared to the state’s population. Both universities have gradually increased minority enrollment in recent years. But Mesquita says more could be done:
“We could be doing better at empowering parents and students to making these informed choices,” he says. “And to afford and have the support as the students go through the experience.”
Mesquita says it’s not academics, but money that keeps many Latino students out of Idaho schools. The cost to go to Boise State, for example, has doubled in the last decade. BSU student Mario agrees with Mesquita’s assessment. He says if there were more programs available to help all poor students afford college, affirmative action wouldn’t be necessary.
While Hispanics and Native Americans are underrepresented in Idaho universities, it’s the opposite for other groups. Asians, Blacks, and Pacific Islanders make up just a small fraction of the student bodies, but that fraction is larger than in Idaho as a whole.
Meanwhile the U.S. Supreme Court isn't expected to make a ruling on affirmative action in higher education until sometime next spring.
Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio