SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Nicole Hernandez arrived at Syracuse University recently for freshman orientation, but she already knew the place well. She had spent two summers here in high school, in a program that gave her college credit, and in a program in her New Jersey school district that has close ties to the university.
''I feel pretty comfortable," said Hernandez, who said her time in Syracuse had inspired her to work to study here.
It generally takes decades for student body profiles to change significantly. But Hernandez, who is Hispanic, is part of a freshman class at Syracuse that looks different from that of even a year ago. The class of 2009 includes almost 24 percent students of color, up from 17 percent for last year's freshman class.
It seemed a surprising jump, considering that last year's incoming class looked essentially the same as it did a decade ago. School officials say this was the fruit of years of hard, expensive work on recruiting and retaining minority students.
''I think the jump we saw this year is the happy coming together of seeds planted deliberately over quite some time," said Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who is starting her second year here.
Cantor was previously provost at the University of Michigan, the school at the center of the US Supreme Court's 2003 ruling on affirmative action. The court ruled that race could be used as a ''plus factor" in admissions.
The one-year jump at Syracuse might attract attention from other schools trying to figure out how to increase their pool of minority applicants, especially because Syracuse has proved that it can bring minority students to campus, and make sure they graduate.
As recently as the early 1990s, only about 63 percent of the school's students graduated, and the minority rate was 20 points lower than that. Now, the rate is about 80 percent overall, 75 percent for minority students.
Nationally, the six-year graduation rate for students starting school in 1995-96 was just 63 percent, according to a recent report by the Education Trust. For Latino students, it was 47 percent; for black students, it was 46 percent.
But the Education Trust report also emphasized that concerted, focused efforts to keep students from dropping out can make a difference. A follow-up report, issued in January, singled out several schools with graduation rates higher than for their peers, including Syracuse.
The lesson at Syracuse is that progress comes gradually, and that it costs money and effort. ''I don't think it's A or B or C," said David Smith, vice president of enrollment management. ''It's A through Z."
The school once made students come in for interviewers; now it goes to schools with large minority student bodies.
As for Hernandez, she said Syracuse still must do more.
''I look around campus especially this first day and I see a lot of Caucasian people," Hernandez said. ''It is not necessarily a bad thing. It just makes me feel a little bit smaller. I know that once I start classes, I'll be one of just one or two minorities in that classroom."