With the beginning of May - the opening of high season for college recruitment drives - the community college's recruiters launched a strategy to stalk students in black neighborhoods, Baptist churches, weekend festivals, check-cashing lines, supermarkets and nightclubs such as Wash's Inn and Jonesy's Bar & Lounge.
Yesterday, a team of students staked a sidewalk recruiting office outside Elsa's Hair Studio, a storefront salon offering $12 haircuts on Atlantic Avenue, in Atlantic City's breezy Inlet neighborhood. With the roar of trucks rumbling by and the complaints of seagulls circling overhead, the recruiters passed out brochures, buttons and perhaps a little hope.
In turn, they collected names and addresses of prospective students on small index cards that numbered nearly 24 at the end of one three-hour recruitment push along the avenue. They scratched down still more names as customers from the neighboring Bi-Rite grocery market strolled by their table, stacked high with brochures about accounting training, culinary programs, nursing classes and casino-career courses.
The sales pitch was delivered in Spanish and English, and it reached teenage Puerto Rican girls pushing baby carriages along the sidewalk and young black men who dropped their gym bags to fill out applications.
"You know, you just can't sit back in the office with your pretty little telephone and expect people to come to you," explained Linda McLeod, who heads the program and coordinates the activities of 10 part-time student recruiters, who are paid $5 an hour to find minority students.
Typically, black and Hispanic students shy away from the traditional school events and college fairs where recruiters flock, according to McLeod. And so about a year ago, the community college followed the advice of a study committee that suggested a more aggressive style of recruiting.
The program mirrors a national trend among colleges and universities to push harder for minority students because of a sharp plunge in the numbers enrolling after high school. Educators say the national rate for college enrollment of blacks dropped from 34 percent in 1976 to 26 percent in 1985. For Hispanic students, the number declined from 36 percent to 27 percent.
At Atlantic Community College, which maintains its main campus on 546 acres in Mays Landing, the number of minority students enrolled there had dwindled over the years despite low tuition, financial aid programs, remedial classes, busing services and child care. Three years ago, there were so few Hispanic students that their campus club simply folded for lack of members.
In 1985, the community college enrolled only 49 blacks and 18 Hispanics in the freshman class. With the creation of the street recruiting program, the
college's minority enrollment of black students doubled the following year to boost black enrollment to 16 percent of the freshman class. The number of
Hispanic students rose to 30, or 5 percent of the freshman class.
School officials credit the increases to their new program, and they say that educators from other colleges are starting to show interest in their approach because of their early success. But they acknowledge that besides boosting enrollment, they also need to work on keeping the students once they register.
Some student recruiters have tried to keep tabs on the people they persuaded to enroll.
Kenneth Rodgers, 31, a recruiter who graduated from Atlantic Community
College with an associate in arts degree last week, never forgot student Juan Walker or their memorable game of pool.
While on a recruitment drive last year in an Arctic Avenue pool hall, Rodgers said, he dared Walker to play a game of pool with him. If Rodgers beat him, Walker had to listen to a five-minute pitch on higher education.
Rodgers won the game and a new student in the college's well-respected culinary-arts program.
"I told him how important it is to attend college," Rodgers said,
recalling his sales pitch. "I told him college is better than unemployment, and that with his financial status, he could get a free education."
Jesus Motta, 27, resisted pitches like Rodgers' for years because "I didn't think I had it in me. I didn't think I was college material."
Last week, Motta became the first in his Puerto Rican family to graduate
from college, with an associate of arts degree. He recalls that many of his friends thought he was crazy to quit his full-time job as a truck driver to return to school. He gets the same reaction sometimes when he tries to recruit students, but still he presses on.
"I really feel good about myself," he said. "I try to show that to others. I say, 'Do something for yourself. Have dreams.' "