End of Race-Based Scholarships Did Not Do Serious Damage to Black Enrollments at the University of Tennessee

In 2006 the federal courts ruled that the state of Tennessee had complied with a mandated desegregation order for its higher education system and was no longer under federal oversight. Prior to this ruling, under what was called the Geier Consent Decree, the University of Tennessee had established a scholarship program whose sole purpose was to increase black enrollments at its flagship Knoxville campus. In 2006 there were 1,000 students on the Knoxville campus who were Geier scholars.

As a result of the ending of a federal mandate calling for efforts to increase racial integration at Tennessee’s colleges and universities, legal authorities in the state came to a consensus that scholarship programs set aside solely for black students at the University of Tennessee and other state-operated educational institutions were no longer constitutional.

Fearing that the end of race-based scholarships would cause a severe decline in black applicants and black enrollees, administrators at the University of Tennessee came up with an alternative plan. The Tennessee Promise scholarship program was established. Under this program, students of any race from 35 different high schools could qualify for full-tuition scholarships at the University of Tennessee. Of the 35 high schools, 21 were in the Memphis school district, where 85 percent of the students are black.

The University of Tennessee also established the Pledge Scholarship program which offers full tuition and room and board to all students whose families earn below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

Preliminary enrollment numbers for 2007 show that blacks make up 9 percent of the incoming class at the University of Tennessee. This is equivalent to the overall black enrollments at the university when the Geier Scholars program was in effect.