White Minority in the Midwest

Highly competitive private colleges follow public colleges in California and private colleges in the Northeast with classes in which white Americans are a minority.

August 29, 2022
Students of various ethnicities are gathered around a square seminar table. An instructor is standing, addressing the group.
(Grinnell College)

The University of California led the way among highly competitive colleges in going to a white minority student body. Last fall, the system’s campuses enrolled 51,727 first-year students. The largest ethnic group among the students was Asian Americans, at 18,127 (35 percent). They were followed by Latino students, at 13,573 (26 percent). White students represented only 10,152 of the total (20 percent). At some campuses, white students make up an even smaller share. At the UC Riverside campus, for instance, last year there were only 517 white freshmen out of a class of 5,203. And this is without affirmative action, which California has banned.

Harvard University followed a few years ago and this fall is expecting Asian Americans to be the largest share of its first-year class, at 27.6 percent. With other students of color, the total minority enrollment is 57.5 percent. At Cornell University, 57.7 percent of admitted students identified as students of color. Amherst College followed the trend last year. Those colleges are all private institutions, and they do use affirmative action.

Now the trend is arriving at private Midwestern colleges and universities.

At Washington University in St. Louis, white students will make up only 38 percent of first-years this fall. Those figures come after a major campaign to increase the number of Pell Grant–eligible students to 20 percent of all freshmen, an increase of 15 percentage points in 10 years. At the University of Chicago, only 33.5 percent of the students were white (in the undergraduate college).

At public universities in the Midwest, the imperative of admitting students from the state’s residents limits what admissions officers can do.

But that’s not the case at liberal arts colleges. The trend extends even to those that are in rural (overwhelmingly white) parts of the country. They believe that enrolling more minority students will help their institutions (as minority populations grow) and that it is simply the right thing to do.

Grinnell College, in Iowa, and Carleton College, in Minnesota, both are majority-minority institutions this fall (counting international students). (Whether the phase “majority minority” should be used anymore is much debated, but its meaning is understood.) At Grinnell, the number of nonwhite freshmen went up from 49.9 percent last year to 50.8 percent of students this year. A big part of the gain was in Latino students, who went from 7.9 percent to 10.5 percent of new students. Grinnell was also aided by international students, who historically at Grinnell (and this year as well) are over 19 percent.

“It’s our mission at work” is how Joseph Bagnoli Jr., vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid, describes having more than half of students be something other than white Americans. Grinnell’s location means that the college has to try harder to recruit minority students, he said. Being need blind in admissions helps a lot, he said. Adding on to that is a “no loans” policy for those who receive aid to attend Grinnell.

Bagnoli said that while not all minority students have financial need, most of them do, particularly given the cost of attending a private college. But he has found that it’s the reality of those policies (the students are admitted and don’t have to borrow money) that attracts students, more than being told that Grinnell is need blind or no loans.

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For international students, Bagnoli said a key part of the college’s approach is not to admit more than one-third of international students from any one country. So in addition to having students from the countries that send the most students to the U.S. (China, South Korea and India), Grinnell has students in the incoming class from Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, Egypt, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, South Africa and many others.

To make its location more attractive, the college does a “fly-in day” for all first-generation and Pell-eligible students and a parent or teacher of the student. Grinnell does well among students who visit, but getting the students to visit is the key challenge, he said.

A major reason for pushing for the nonwhite majority (aside from the fact the country’s schools are already there) is that it helps recruit more minority students or international students.

Jivyya Vaidya, president of the International Student Organization at Grinnell, is from India. When she encourages fellow Indians to consider Grinnell, she says, “half of them think it’s Cornell,” and the other half say, “What is Iowa?”

To say that the international and minority student population is significant at Grinnell makes a real difference to potential students, especially if they study up on Iowa and discover that it is mostly white, Vaidya said.

Loyal Terry, president of Grinnell’s Student Government Association and co-president of the Black Student Union, said he is a low-income student from Los Angeles, so he was taking a chance on Grinnell when he went there—and he’s glad he did.

“It shows we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he said of the college’s new status. “It’s exciting that Grinnell can be a model for other institutions.”

Affirmative Action

At Carleton, officials don’t boast about their numbers, because they would only be a majority-minority institution if they count international students. But Art D. Rodriguez, its new vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, is happy nonetheless.

He remembers being a low-income Latino student from Southern California when he was recruited to come to Carleton as a student (Class of ’96). “There were lots of questions,” he said, including many that didn’t deal with Carleton’s curriculum. (For instance, he wanted to know if there would be any food that he would like. There was, he found, courtesy of Latinos who worked at Carleton.)

As he has succeeded in attracting minority students to Carleton, he has wondered about what he might to do next year, if the Supreme Court, as expected, places severe limits on colleges’ use of affirmative action.

“We’re all holding our breath,” said Rodriguez.

A big question he has is what the Supreme Court will do about targeted recruitment efforts. If the Supreme Court bans them (if they are focused on particular minority groups), it will be particularly difficult to sustain the momentum in recruiting minority students, he said.

Bagnoli said that Grinnell is watching as well. The college is fighting for Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to win their cases. But at the same time, he said, Grinnell is looking at what programs it could keep under a decision that went the other way. Like Rodriguez, he is particularly interested in recruitment, not the pure admissions decisions.

“We are committed to replacing affirmative action,” he said, if the Supreme Court reverses itself. “We feel as though we just now arrived and the Supreme Court will be a setback.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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