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JCSU Ramps Up Pitch To Latino Students

Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Biddle Memorial Hall at Johnson C. Smith University

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a long history of giving minority students access to education. But as HBCUs around the country face financial hardships, loss of accreditation and even — for a few — closure, some schools are turning to a new community for recruitment: Latino students. That includes Johnson C. Smith University in west Charlotte.

Students, faculty and curious families gathered Wednesday night in a banquet hall on the second floor of the JCSU student union. They came together for a Latino open house hosted by the university. JCSU is reaching out to the Latino community in an effort to show those looking for an education that they have a place at the historically black institution.

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Prospective students gather with current students and faculty for the Latino Open House.

Interested students were even able to apply at the event, and Director of Admissions Vory Billups said JCSU would waive the $25 application fee.

“For any student who has already applied or wants to apply on the spot and bring along their transcripts and SAT scores, we’ll grant admission on the spot,” Billups said.  

But he said that’s if the student meets the minimum GPA and test score requirements. Billups said students can also apply and be considered for scholarships at the event.

“We can have students awarded by the time maybe even dinner rolls around," he said. “What a great dessert.”

JCSU has always been open to non-black students, but it started actively recruiting Latino students in 2011. Billups said it’s on par with the school’s mission to open up opportunities for those who face barriers to entry into majority white institutions — barriers such as immigration status.

At the open house, a JCSU representative explained to a parent in Spanish that their child wouldn’t need a social security number to apply. She also told the mother that the student doesn’t need to apply for federal financial aid — which an unauthorized student is ineligible for anyway — and that application for a scholarship can be done internally at the school.

Because JCSU is a private school, it can have a flat tuition for all students regardless of residence or citizenship status. That tuition is $18,236 per year. Scholarships are funded by the school and by private organizations that partner with JCSU, like the Duke Endowment.

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Brenda Montanez, 20, is a junior studying biology at JCSU.

Brenda Montanez is a junior at JCSU and said she remembers clearly the stress of applying for colleges. She’s from Mexico and has lived in Charlotte since she was four without legal status. Now, she has DACA status, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But when Montanez was a senior in high school, she didn’t have the protections that go along with being a DACA recipient. Applying for colleges meant facing out-of-state tuition — if the school accepted her application anyway.

But on the same day that she was about to commit to another school that she really didn’t know if she could afford, JCSU called her and offered her a full-ride scholarship.

“I was so grateful. I felt like a burden was lifted off of me,” Montanez said. “So, coming in as an undocumented student, I just feel like JCSU really opened the doors for me that other colleges just literally just shut in [my] face.”

Montanez said she knows there are other students who face the same barriers when applying to college.

“I think it’s important to get the word out so they know there’s a different path out there for them, not just getting a job or doing other things,” she said. “So, if they really want to pursue education, it’s there.”

The benefits of recruiting Latino students are two-fold. It furthers the university’s mission while helping it keep its enrollment numbers up.

Alvin Schexnider is a higher education consultant who studies trends in HBCUs. He said many schools are struggling as more black students are choosing majority white colleges.

“They no longer enjoy the monopoly on African-American students and faculty that they once did," Schexnider said. “Many are trying to redefine who they are, how they can grow and develop a new business model. If they’re wise, that new business model includes diversity.”

Credit Zuri Berry / WFAE
A look at the number of total students enrolled at Johnson C. Smith compared to the number of Latino students for the past eight years.

In the midst of the challenges HBCUs are facing, Latino enrollment at those colleges and universities is growing — especially in places with large Hispanic populations. Pew research shows the number of Latinos on HBCU campuses increased from 1.6 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2015.

At JCSU, enrollment has fluctuated in the last 8 years, but it hasn’t taken the hit other historically black institutions have faced. JCSU’s enrollment numbers have ranged from about 1,300 to about 1,500 students, peaking in 2012 at over 1,669 students.

In 2012, a year after JCSU ramped up its recruitment, the university saw a record 86 Latino students enrolled. In 2018, there are 45 Latino students enrolled, making up for about three percent of the student body.

Now, the school is making its recruitment more aggressive — holding open houses like the one on Wednesday to connect with the local Latino community. But Irene Sandoval, who helps lead Latino outreach at the university, said the process will take time.

“It’s not necessarily a natural or organic connection to make,” Sandoval said. “You need to work on it. You need to act as a connector and make that bridge.”

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
High school senior Adderly Flores begins his application to Johnson C. Smith, hoping he'll qualify for scholarships.

Seven potential students attended and four filled out applications, including Adderly Flores. He’s a senior and admitted that his mom dragged him to the event. But after seeing what JCSU has to offer, he said he’s excited.

“I was just looking at my mom because I went to other places and they don’t talk about it like that — you know what I’m saying?” Flores said. “They offer [scholarships] to like 4.0 GPAs and all that and I don’t think I could get there, especially with it being my last year.”

Flores said he’s confident he can qualify for some kind of scholarship and if he gets it, he’ll enroll.

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.