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The University of Texas at Austin (photo by Reid Sullivan)

AUSTIN, Texas—The West Mall of the University of Texas at Austin, just outside the student union, looks like any other college campus. Students rush to grab lunch, scurry to class or man recruiting tables for the country-dance and sailing clubs. A few relax, listening to music or talking on the phone with family and friends.

But there’s something different here. Past the antebellum-style fraternity houses, the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the pickup trucks in the parking lots, there’s much more color.

Whites are in the minority this year for the first time in the history of the flagship Texas school, which was segregated until the 1950s.

Fifty-two percent of the Class of 2014 is nonwhite. Black and Hispanic students represent about 5 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Asians account for 17 percent of freshmen.

The demographic shift at U.T. is a bellwether of what is about to happen—and, with little notice, already has, at other universities in Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and New York—in a country where new Census figures confirm that nonwhites are by far the fastest-growing proportion of traditional-age university students.

“What is increasingly evident now that wasn’t evident 10 or 20 years ago is the extent to which this is a national phenomenon,” said Steve Murdock, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. “Just 13 years from now we’re going to have a school system nationally in which a majority of the children are something other than non-Hispanic whites. This is not a Texas issue. It’s not a California issue. It’s a national issue. And how well we deal with it will determine how well we remain competitive economically.”

In order to continue supplying the number of college-educated workers needed at a time when white population growth has been flat for 20 years, said Murdock and others, the nation’s universities will have to educate far more nonwhites. But they may not be ready to do so.

“The numbers have been telling the story for years, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten through to policymakers that this was going on, and clearly not to the general public,” said Stan Jones, former Indiana commissioner of education and now president of Complete College America, a national nonprofit group dedicated to boosting the number of college graduates. “All of us are seeing it happening faster than we had expected.”

To walk across the U.T. campus is to see both the efforts and the obstacles to integrating diverse populations. Whites seem to socialize with whites, blacks with blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, and Asians with Asians. There’s a recruiting table for an Iranian student organization and another for Filipinos. New memorials to Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez and Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, are visible not far from that statue of Jefferson Davis.

While the population on campus is more diverse than ever, it still seems segregated, said Michael Williams, a sophomore from Corsicana, Texas who is majoring in sociology. Of some 65 fraternities and sororities on campus, five are historically black, while many others are predominantly Asian, white or Hispanic. “People tend to get drawn to people who look like them,” said Williams, who is black.

The growing number of minority students presents social and academic challenges at the same time that universities’ resources are stretched more thinly than ever, and when there are widespread demands for higher graduation rates. That’s because many of these new nonwhite students come from underperforming urban high schools and low-income families where they are the first to go to college. And statistically they’re the most likely to drop out.

Nationally, 52 percent of Hispanics and 58 percent of blacks fail to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years of beginning college, compared to 40 percent of whites, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“When it came time in high school to get ready for college, I didn’t know what that meant,” said Oscar Ayala, a U.T. senior from Houston who is majoring in biomedical engineering. Both of his parents are from Mexico, and neither attended college.

While Hispanics are the only ethnic group in the U.S. with any significant increase in the number of births, they don’t graduate from high school, matriculate to college or graduate at the same rates as whites do, Jones said.

“If you look at the freshman class everywhere in this country, it is more representative than it’s ever been,” he said. “But in four years, if you look at the graduating class, it is not going to be representative of this country, because many of those students from the underrepresented groups won’t make it to graduation.”

Educators give several reasons for the disparity, including economic differences, the comparative quality of college preparation at urban, rural and suburban schools, and a sense of isolation among those who are the first in their families to go to college.

“These are terrific students,” said William Powers Jr., president of U.T.-Austin. “Often, they may have gone to a high school where they didn’t have a calculus class or Advanced Placement classes. The challenges are also financial and what I might call cultural. They might be away from home and they don’t have parents and aunts and uncles who have already been here.”

The new demographics at U.T. don’t yet reflect the diversity of Texas, which became a “majority-minority” state in 2004. Nearly 39 percent of the population is Hispanic and 12 percent is black. In the 15 largest school districts in Texas—which enroll a quarter of the state’s students—minorities are the majority. The Dallas and Houston independent school districts are 92 percent and 95 percent nonwhite, respectively.

In 2007, U.T. set up a Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to expose high school students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to the idea of going to college. It spends $30.4 million a year to encourage them to come and then help keep them there.

“They have the tenacity to do it. The question is, can we get them the support to help them over the gaps?” said Gregory Vincent, U.T.’s vice president of diversity and community engagement.

A complex and comprehensive framework of support programs includes tutoring, personal advising, mentoring by upperclassmen, smaller classes, and first choice of courses during registration. About $5 million of the budget is covered by state funds, and the rest comes from foundations and other donors.

The results, so far, have been promising. Generally, students in the division’s programs have grade-point averages and retention rates as good as or better than the average in their respective classes. In the California State University system, all of whose campuses are majority nonwhite, graduation rates have increased for all groups, though disparities in the rates remain.

“It is not a deterministic thing that graduation rates go down” as nonwhite representation goes up, said Philip Garcia, that system’s director of analytic studies.

At U.T., “The good news is that our students come highly motivated, so our challenges aren’t as great as you’d expect, despite assumptions some people might make about their backgrounds,” said Aileen Bumphus, executive director of the Gateway Scholars Program, which works with about 300 first-generation students out of 4,000 incoming freshmen.

There are still obstacles to greater involvement in higher education by students from traditionally underrepresented groups—most notably, budget cuts.

In November, a faculty panel proposed deep cuts to ethnic-studies programs, including the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Students, the Center for Asian American Studies and the Center for Mexican American Studies. Nearly 3,000 students enrolled in courses offered directly or cross-listed by these programs last semester. Once the panel’s recommendations were made public, about 150 students and faculty members protested, many accusing the administration of racism. University administrators have since said the proposed cuts will be scaled back.

In addition, legislators may slash funding for the state’s largest financial-aid program, on which a disproportionate number of nonwhite, low-income students depend.

Depiction of University of Texas Law Building, Early 20th Century (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

At U.T., some white students, many of whom grew up among people of different races in their Texas hometowns, say they don’t notice the changing demographics.

But Kacie Sebek, a senior from Houston, who is white, said she has seen classmates from predominantly white communities appear uncomfortable. “You have someone closed off in their own white neighborhood, and suddenly they’re in a world where people are different,” she said.

Alfonzo Paredes, a freshman biology major from Laredo, who is Hispanic, likes being at a campus where so many students look like him. “It let me know that I do have a chance here,” Paredes said. “It’s exciting in a way—like it’s someone else’s turn to be the majority. It’s someone else’s turn to be on top.”

Vincent, who oversees the diversity programs on campus and was born in 1962, said students at U.T. “see race in a very different way than my generation sees it. In this generation, a white kid is just as likely to listen to rap music. There’s a sense, at least culturally, that there’s more of a mix of cultures.”

Most U.T. students hardly noticed the demographic milestone reached by the current freshman class. “If you want to take sort of a benchmark of how we’ve progressed over 20 years, it would be that this went more unrecognized than you might have expected it to,” said President Powers. “That is, in itself, a milestone.”

A version of this article, which was produced in partnership with the Texas Tribune, appeared in The New York Times on January 2, 2011.

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