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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Student desegregation at University of Tennessee campuses since 1984 has been dramatic, UT President Joe Johnson said Monday.

But “the number of black students who receive degrees should be much more important…than the number who simply enroll as freshmen,” Johnson said in a prepared statement to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s desegregation committee.

“On this point, I am enormously proud of the progress we have made throughout the UT system.”

The percentage of UT-Knoxville black students who graduate has risen from 33 percent to 48.7 percent since 1984, Johnson said.

“To put this number in perspective, UT-Knoxville’s graduate rate for black students is higher than the graduation for white students in any other state institution,” Johnson said.

Among the state’s nine four-year undergraduate public universities, the UT president said, UT’s three campuses were among the top five in number of fall 1988 black students who graduated within six years. The University of Memphis was second (36.4 percent), followed by UT-Martin (35.2), East Tennessee State (33.3) and UT-Chattanooga (29.5).

“Every (UT) campus has gone the extra mile to make the climate (for minority students) more hospitable,” Johnson said. Recruiting of black students has intensified. Funding for minority scholarships has increased sharply.”

But Johnson said the most important factor in a student’s choice of colleges is location and proximity to home.

“Most students…choose a school within a 100-mile radius of home,” Johnson said, quoting a 1992 study published in the Journal of College Admission.

“Location was more important than the reputation, the social life and even the cost of a particular school. This phenomenon is true nationally,” Johnson said.

The UT president said Shelby County (Memphis) has approximately half of all blacks in Tennessee and the largest pool of the state’s black college-age students.

Memphis and Knoxville are 400 miles apart, Johnson said.

“White and black students alike view that distance as a real barrier. The same holds true only to a lesser extent in Nashville, where many students find the 200-mile distance to Knoxville simply too far to travel (to attend college),” he said.

“Before and since 1984, some 75 percent of UT-Knoxville’s in-state students have lived within 100 miles of Knoxville.”

Collectively, Johnson said, UT’s black undergraduate enrollment last fall was 2,646, up 7 percent since 1984. As percentages of total enrollment, he said, black enrollment is 12 percent at UT-Chattanooga, 15 percent at UT-Martin, and 5 percent at UT-Knoxville.

“Increases in (black) enrollments have been accompanied by steady improvements in black graduation rates,” Johnson said.

UT has invested substantially in orientation, counseling and tutoring, Johnson said, “but the reward…is a large increase in the number of students who stay in school, receive their degree and leave prepared to make a contribution back to Tennessee’s economy.”

Johnson said he presented a 10-year view of UT’s progress rather than a microscopic one-year picture because “some folks want to declare success or failure if a category is one-half percent up or down.”