The representation of Black students at the country's most selective public colleges and universities has, in many cases, gotten worse since 2000.
A report from the Education Trust, "Segregation Forever?," makes the case for why higher education leaders and policy makers need to focus on college access for students of color, and not just college completion.
"It comes down to, what are the priorities of institutional leaders and policy makers?" said Andrew Nichols, senior director of higher education research and data analytics at Ed Trust, as well as the author of the report. "Access is about will and desire. When it’s not a priority, oftentimes things are overlooked."
The report looks at the 101 most selective public institutions in the country, which include state flagships, colleges with high average SAT scores and colleges classified as "more selective" and "highest research activity" in the 2015 Carnegie Foundation Classification scheme. Ed Trust assigned them grades based on how well their undergraduate student bodies represent the diversity of their state's population by comparing the percentage of enrolled Black and Latinx students to the percentage of college-aged Black and Latinx people in the state's population.
"When you look at access for Black students, by and large the data are awful," Nichols said.
More than three-quarters of the 101 colleges received an F grade for their representation of Black students. Since 2000, the percentage of Black students decreased at nearly 60 percent of these colleges. Almost half of the colleges received F grades for representation of Latinx students. While each institution made gains in its percentage of Latinx students on campus, the gains at half of the colleges were less than the growth in the state's Latinx population.
Of particular concern is that institutions in states with the highest populations of Black and Latinx people had the poorest access. Nearly all of the institutions in the 13 southern states, which have more than half of the nation's Black population, received failing grades. The three institutions that received above an F were in the two southern states with the lowest share of Black residents.
Similarly, most of the colleges in the nine states with three-quarters of the country's Latinx population received D's and F's.
Access to these public institutions is important, Nichols said, because they tend to have more resources for student supports and financial aid.
"If access is limited to these institutions, we’re disproportionately providing opportunities to wealthier white students," he said. If Black and Latinx students attend lower-resourced colleges, they are less likely to complete because they are less likely to receive the support they need.
Varsha Sarveshwar, president of the University of California Student Association and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, said she was not surprised by the report, though she was disappointed.
As a student and student leader, she saw examples of UC's underrepresentation of Black and Latinx students all the time, she said. Black students would often talk about going to classes and never seeing a person who looked like them, or feeling constantly unwelcome. And while blatant racism from students at the progressive college was not as large an issue, microaggressions were, she said.
Seven of the UC institutions in the report received F or D grades for access for both Latinx and Black students in 2000.
But some institutions did receive high scores and saw improvements since 2000.
For example, the University of Albany, part of the State University of New York system, was one of the few institutions to receive a high access grade and have a Black student body over 10 percent. It improved its score from an F in 2000 to an A in 2017.
The university has increased its student body diversity through recruiting diverse students, offering support services and mentoring to students, and promoting inclusivity, Tamra Minor, UAlbany’s chief diversity officer, said in an emailed response to questions.
"Diversity has long been part of UAlbany’s culture," Minor said. "We’ve paid attention to the changing demographics in our state and are consciously building the inclusiveness at our university that must come with a diverse student body."
The university has made several investments toward that end, including grant funding for activities that include inclusiveness as a major goal, funding for recruiting symposia and mentoring programs for faculty of color, and more, she said. It also hosts conversations with students and faculty about diversity and has recently created a task force focused on diversity and inclusivity to evaluate programming.
The University of Central Florida also improved its score, but for Latinx students, from an F to a B over the 17-year time period.
It credits much of the success to its DirectConnect to UCF program, which guarantees transfer admission for students at six partner community colleges.
More than 6,000 students enroll in the program, which started in the mid-2000s, annually. It helps them save money on tuition costs while also improving the community colleges' completion rates and increasing enrollment at UCF, said Maribeth Ehasz, vice president of student development and enrollment services at the university.
The most important factor in getting this program to work was the shared governance model created between the institutions, according to Jeff Jones, vice provost of UCF Connect and UCF Global. There's an annual presidents meeting for the leaders of each of the partner colleges, a committee for chief academic officers, a steering committee, an annual conference and shared data resources.
"It’s not a matter of flip the switch, but it is a commitment of time and effort," Jones said. "You have to have patience and you have to have sustainability. These kinds of programs can’t be created in a year or two."
While that's not an easy thing to do, Jones believes that every university should have a program like DirectConnect. Many students who enroll in community colleges say they want to get a four-year degree eventually, but few do, he said.
"To me, there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be doing this," he said.
The report includes 10 recommendations to change policies and institutional practices that could improve the grades of more than just a few colleges. They include adopting goals, increasing access to guidance counselors, using race more prominently in admissions decisions, rescinding state bans on affirmative action, increasing aid to Black and Latinx students, changing recruitment strategies, improving campus racial climates, using outcomes-based funding policies equitably, leveraging federal accountability, and reducing the role of standardized testing in admissions.
Of those, one of the most important is rescinding bans on affirmative action, according to Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at Ed Trust (and an occasional opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed). When she was a student at a university in Michigan, the ban on affirmative action made many staff and faculty afraid and confused about what strategies they could use, she said.
"Rescinding those bans could be a signaling to all that this is OK, this is welcome," she said.
For Nichols, making public commitments to enrolling more students of color is an important piece of the solution, as well as increasing accountability for colleges.
"These institutions are going to need some skin in the game to make them want to do something different than what they’ve been doing for so long," he said.
However, he's not very hopeful that things will change any time soon.
"Personally, I’m generally not terribly optimistic that folks are going to do the right thing around race," Nichols said, adding that institutions "have a history of showing us that they are not going to do the right thing."
Still, Jones believes this is a critical moment -- given the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest over racism -- for leaders to make decisions that will have long-term impacts, hopefully for the better.