December 26, 2022

Sandy Macys for The New York Times
Students from Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx toured the University of Vermont, which is cultivating them as applicants.

aving been unable to diversify its main campus through more traditional recruiting techniques, the University of Vermont has embarked on a more radical approach: it has enlisted a public high school in the Bronx as a farm team to provide a dependable supply of black and Hispanic applicants.

In its first such effort last year, the university enrolled 13 students from the school, Christopher Columbus High, which instantly became the single largest feeder to the university outside Vermont.

In putting down roots in the Bronx, the University of Vermont joins a growing list of institutions in rural areas � including Colgate University, Skidmore College and St. Michael's, another Vermont college � that have created similar partnerships in recent years with public schools in New York or Boston. All of the colleges have black and Hispanic populations that have hovered around the same low proportions as Vermont's, which has been stuck around 5 percent.

With federal courts in Texas and Georgia having chipped away at race-conscious admissions practices in recent years, and the Supreme Court being urged to revisit the issue, the arrangements offer the prospect of an alternative.

The relationships � modeled on those of an earlier time, when prep schools like Andover and Choate began shepherding well-connected white students to Harvard and Yale � provide benefits to both sides.

The university makes a direct pitch to students who might not otherwise have Vermont on their radar. (Many of the students from Columbus are immigrants or the children of immigrants from Africa and the Dominican Republic). And the students get an inside track on how to apply to a highly regarded public institution, with advising sessions conducted in their school by the very admissions officers who would soon be reading the students' submissions.

"When we went to visit, the campus was all white, so I know they're getting something out of us," said Akosua Asor Yeboah, 18, a Columbus senior and native of Ghana whose parents did not attend college. "I'm getting something out of it, too � a scholarship."

Even affirmative-action opponents seem to like the plan.

"This is a great idea, provided there isn't an implicit sign, `No whites need apply,' " said Abigail M. Thernstrom, co-author of "America in Black and White" (1997), which is critical of racial preferences in college admissions. "While I don't think it's the job of American higher education to reform elementary and secondary education, anyone who wants to intervene to make sure black and Hispanic students acquire the skills to do well in higher education is providing a fabulous service."

While Ms. Thernstrom and other critics have asserted that universities sometimes dilute their standards when considering minority applicants, Vermont is already working with ninth graders at Columbus to ensure that when they apply, they have the skills and savvy to compete with white applicants from more affluent schools.

And at Columbus, whose reputation in the borough is eclipsed only by the Bronx High School of Science, the university has been working closely with white students, too. They represent about 15 percent of the 3,300- member Columbus student body.

"Not only are we happy to look at students of other backgrounds," said Don Honeman, the director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Vermont, "we're also helping all of the students apply to other colleges."

On one of several recent mornings that Mr. Honeman and his colleagues spent at Columbus, they provided the students, including at least one who was white, with the sort of guidance that children of better-educated parents take for granted.

They encouraged Emmanuel Nsiah, 19, a native of Ghana, to use his personal essay to help the admissions committee get to know him better. (He has been in the United States less than two years, and his father is enrolled in community college). They also assured Akosua, who, like Emmanuel, had enjoyed visiting Vermont in November, that her relatively low score on the main SAT exam could be offset by the rigorous Advancement Placement courses she had chosen to take at Columbus. "They made me feel relaxed," she said.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court's Bakke decision in 1978, colleges and universities have been expanding their recruitment and admission of minority students ever since: after having little presence on most college campuses through the early 1960's, black and Hispanic students now represent nearly one-fifth of those enrolled at four-year colleges.

But in recent years, such statistics have stabilized, putting particular pressure on institutions in rural areas, like Vermont, which relies on a home-state population that is largely white.

Because Vermont's flagship campus, Burlington, is much closer to Montreal than to Boston and New York, it has had limited success with the recruitment methods of more centrally located colleges. Those institutions often woo black and Hispanic high school students by ferrying them to campus on college-chartered buses or trains.

And so, Vermont, Colgate and other institutions have concluded that they might be better served by developing their own pool of minority candidates. But as yet, no other college or university has established a program that has been as concerted as that of the Vermont and Columbus partnership.

By Jan. 15, more than 40 Columbus seniors are expected to have submitted applications for next year's freshman class of 1,200 at Vermont. They will be considered in the university's regular pool.

Last year, 32 Columbus students applied to Vermont, and 22 were accepted, with full financial aid. (Tuition and other fees for out-of-state students total nearly $27,000.) By ultimately sending Vermont 13 students last year, Columbus, which abuts a housing project, tellingly displaced Vermont's reigning out-of- state feeder, Newton North High School, which serves an affluent community in Massachusetts.

The idea for the arrangement originated with Gerald Garfin, who graduated from Columbus in 1960 and has served as its principal since 1995. Mr. Garfin said he was seeking to broaden the horizons of his students, who mostly apply to the City and State Universities of New York. Nearly half of those Columbus students who graduate go on to four-college.

The match was made with the help of Herbert F. Dalton Jr., a former Middlebury College admissions officer who arranged a similar connection between Middlebury and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the 1980's. He now runs an organization that encourages such efforts, the Foundation for Excellent Schools. The deal was sealed when the airline Jet Blue donated more than 100 round-trip tickets between New York and Burlington.

Among the first beneficiaries of the arrangement was Renae Francis, 18, a native of Jamaica who just completed her freshman fall at Vermont. She said that she had adjusted easily to her new academic life, and was especially enjoying being the first black person whom many of her classmates had ever met.

"They're learning that I listen to the same music as they do and wear the same clothes," Ms. Francis said. "I'm showing them that I'm not different just because of my skin color."