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ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING PLACES TO BE around noon on any weekday is the University Center at the University of Houston. It’s a long, low, unremarkable building with an open rectangular courtyard in the center. The rails around the courtyard are always covered with hand-painted posters for various events and organizations—a venerable and unchanging form of campus communication that even the wonders of high tech have not replaced. Just before noon, representatives of everything from the Pakistani Student Association to Campus Presbyterians set up card tables covered with literature and try to recruit students passing by. Inside there is a large cafeteria. Walking into it is like walking into the restaurant at the United Nations. There is a complex din of languages from every continent and a spectrum of skin hues. There are brash young women in miniskirts and tight camisoles and Muslim women in loose robes that reach to the floor and scarves that cover their hair. There are taut, rebellious-looking young men in sandals and blue jeans and solemn young men of ambition in white shirts and ties.
With only a few exceptions, students eat with other students who look like themselves. Africans eat with Africans, African Americans eat with other African Americans, Muslim women eat with Muslim women, Arabs with Arabs, Hispanics with Hispanics, and whites with whites. But there isn’t tension in the air. People gossip and wave at friends. Many sit with textbooks open and go over lessons. To watch this scene at noon is to see the future of the city taking shape before your eyes and to understand that the University of Houston, unique among schools in Texas, is an immense and successful engine of assimilation located right in the center of the community it serves.
It’s rare to find a school that is both this diverse and this selective about the quality of students it admits. The Hopwood decision, which nullified the University of Texas’ method of admitting minority students through affirmative action, created an agonized panic throughout the UT and Texas A&M systems. These institutions worry publicly that without affirmative action in enrollment they will revert to entirely white schools. But the Hopwood decision hardly affected the University of Houston. In 1996 the university hired Ed C. Apodaca from the University of California as associate vice president for enrollment management. He instituted a rigorous system of recruitment and statistical reporting that lets him know day by day the state of requests, applications, and enrollment compared with the same day in previous years. Any shortfall can be addressed immediately, and as a result enrollment has begun to rise steadily year by year. Apodaca does not have programs for recruiting specifically black or Hispanic students, as many universities do. He has found that the high schools in Houston are so ethnically diverse in themselves that if he concentrates on recruiting from Houston high schools without regard to color, a diverse student body follows naturally. “People ask me what my secret is for recruiting minority students,” Apodaca says. “But there is no secret. You don’t have special recruitment for minorities. Those kids recognize those programs and are suspicious of them. Instead, you recruit from the high schools in a dedicated, systematic way, and that gives you the results you want.”
The University of Houston began in 1927 as a community college in the Houston Independent School District. In 1945 it became a private university, with H. R. Cullen chairing the board of regents. In addition to donating many millions of dollars to the school, Cullen defined the institution as a place where the sons and daughters of Houston’s blue-collar workers could get an education. In 1963 the university became a public school supported by the State of Texas. The university has grown, expanded, and changed. It offers a number of first-class programs in basic science, architecture, hotel and restaurant management, art, music, and creative writing, among others. Different as today’s students are from those who attended in 1945, the school’s central purpose—to educate those of modest means—remains the same.
Today the University of Houston has 32,296 students. Some of them enrolled right out of high school: Their parents pay their tuition and expenses, they live in the college dorms during the school year and try to work during the summer, and they graduate in four years. They are, in other words, traditional college students following the traditional pattern of most schools. But it’s not the traditional pattern here. At the University of Houston the mean age of an undergraduate student is 23.3, and the mean age of the senior class is 26.7. The reason is that typical students there do not complete their studies in four years because they leave now and again for a semester or two to work so that they can afford to go back to school. About one third of the undergraduates are part-time students.
The student body is only 48 percent white. Twelve percent is black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian. Many are commuter students who live in their parents’ home or in an apartment with their own spouse and children, and the savings from living at home rather than on campus is an important factor in their ability to attend college. It’s also important that the university is located in an older, modest, ethnic neighborhood of Houston—in other words, the neighborhood where many of its students grew up. A commute to school is often fifteen minutes or less. More than three fourths of the students come from Harris County (where Houston is located) or from the adjacent counties. Most of the rest come from elsewhere in Texas. Of the remainder, more come from foreign countries than from other states in the union. There are more students at the University of Houston from the People’s Republic of China than from Louisiana, more from Pakistan than from New York. And, of course, among the students from Harris County are many originally from foreign countries whose families now live in Houston. This makes the school both international and local at the same time. As diverse as the students are, about 75 percent remain in Houston after graduation. Each year there are more than 3,400 students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees, which means that each year Houston sees another 2,550 people prepared for a professional career, most of whom do not come from a white-collar background.
Here are a few typical stories:
Adrian Robles graduated in 1997 with a degree in finance. He had grown up in Houston and lived at home while in school. He had a scholarship and also worked part-time as a bank teller. Now he is in the accounting department of an oil and gas company and has returned to the University of Houston to get an advanced degree in international business. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college.
Ronald Green graduated in 1993. He lived at home in Houston while in school. He might have lived on campus if he had taken out student loans, but he always planned to get a graduate degree, and by living at home, he could avoid the need for any loans until then. Still, he was more active in campus life than the typical commuter student. Now he has his own law practice in Houston. He met most of his professional associates while at the University of Houston.
Christina Garza, born and raised in Houston, graduated in 1996 with a degree in radio-television. Now she is a news reporter for Univision in Houston. The only child of a single parent, she attended the university on a scholarship. While at school, she worked as an intern and later as a paid writer at Telemundo. She is the first in her immediate family to graduate from college.
Gerardo Balboa received a degree in business and finance in 1993, then entered law school at the university, graduating and passing the bar in 1998. He is one of two children of a single mother who teaches school in Houston. She offered unlimited moral support but could offer little financial support. He put himself through school with scholarships and by working at Tenneco. He was able to arrange his schedule at the University of Houston so that he could work twenty hours a week. “I was just a college kid, but I was getting experience at a Fortune 500 company,” Balboa says. “When I graduated, I got five job offers because I had been working and applying what I was learning in the classroom every day.” At law school he helped start an energy trading company that has been successful: “I’m a lawyer, but even if I went to work for one of the biggest firms in Houston, I’d have to take a big hit financially.”
One reason the university can consistently produce graduates like these is that, despite its broad and varied student body, it is still selective. On average University of Houston students were in the top 30 percent of their high school class. Four hundred freshmen are in the more selective Honors College and thirty of them were National Merit finalists.
As huge and sprawling as it is and as polyglot as it is and as Southern as it is and as multiracial as it is, Houston is remarkably peaceful. Race is an import- ant factor in civic life, but not the determining factor anymore. Nor is it even the most important factor. Perhaps there are many reasons. On the other hand, perhaps there is really only one. Someone growing up in Houston who is poor can see a way out, can see a bridge from where he is to where he might want to be. To cross the bridge, there is no need to leave home, there is no need to spend a lot of money, and there is no need to feel intimidated, because many who started with very little have crossed the bridge already. And that bridge is the University of Houston.