Divided We Learn

Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

As Supreme Court considers affirmative action and students protest treatment, the admissions office can be a big obstacle

Petersburg High School’s principal and guidance counselor have helped more than half of their students go to college, but none have gone to UVA since 2010.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As racial unrest sweeps across major college campuses, and African-American students demand more equitable treatment, college administrators need look no farther than their own admissions offices to find one root of the problem.

The nation’s flagship public universities — large, taxpayer-funded institutions whose declared mission is to educate residents of their states — enroll far smaller proportions of black students than other colleges, and the number appears to be declining, according to federal records and college enrollment data analyzed by The Hechinger Report and The Huffington Post.

On average, just 5 percent of students at the nation’s flagship public universities are black. As recently as a decade ago, that figure was higher, although changing methods of counting racial categories makes a precise comparison difficult.

Even here at the University of Virginia, which prides itself on the diversity of its campus, just 8 percent of students are black. Just 5 percent are black Virginians, in a state where 22 percent of public high school graduates are African-American.

Virginia is hardly unusual. At most flagships, the African-American percentage of the student population is well below that of the state’s public high school graduates. Typical are the University of Delaware, with a student body that is 5 percent African-American in a state where 30 percent of public high school graduates are black, and the University of Georgia, where it’s 7 percent compared with 34 percent.

Flagships matter because they almost always have the highest graduation rates among public colleges in their state — especially for black students — as well as extensive career resources, well-placed alumni networks, a broad range of course selections and high-profile faculty. For state residents, these colleges also offer the most affordable top-quality college education, and usually a path toward better opportunities after college.

Virginia says it ranks among the best flagships in graduating black students.

Black enrollment could decline even further if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who says she was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. The Justices seemed skeptical of the benefits of race-conscious admissions when they heard arguments in the case, on Dec. 9. Justice Antonin Scalia made comments that day interpreted as favoring the idea that underprepared black students would do better in “lesser colleges” rather than struggling to keep up at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the firestorm that followed his comments, advocates of affirmative action pointed to research that shows a near doubling of graduation rates for those African-American and Hispanic students who move from colleges with no academic admissions requirements to more selective ones. After the University of Texas at Austin began guaranteeing admission to the top 10 percent of students in the state’s high school classes, a move that admitted more supposedly less prepared students, graduation rates from the university went up.

The low number of black students at selective colleges not only threatens to increase segregation and inflame tensions on college campuses, it could also partially explain the significant gap in the proportion of whites versus their black and Latino peers who hold university and college degrees.

Recent studies show that an African-American child who grew up in a middle-income family now has a better chance of falling down the income ladder as an adult than of climbing up it.

For many Americans, college is a route to a secure middle class life, which is why the flagship state universities are so important. But experts say that too many of these colleges are blocking this path rather than clearing it.

“Higher education is making it worse, not better, for many students,” said Anthony Carnevale, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “College now takes the disadvantages that begin at birth, and then magnifies them.”

Carnevale and other researchers say that the higher education system now works against poorer students, including many who are black and Latino, by tracking them towards colleges with fewer resources and lower overall quality, where it is often more difficult to finish degrees.

Related: Supreme Court Justices question when and whether diversity will be achieved

Only 5 percent of students at Virginia’s flagship public university are in-state African-American students.

The flagship universities argue that they are trying to attract more diverse students. They say budgets cuts from state legislatures and debates about balancing admission standards with diversity goals pose challenges that they haven’t been able to resolve.

The University Virginia used to win praise among advocates of increasing black enrollment at selective colleges, and it hit a high mark in 2007 when 11 percent of its freshman class was black, but the next year that number began to fall.

Cost is one significant barrier to enrollment of more black students. In Virginia in 2002, state funding paid for two-thirds of the cost of attending a public college and tuition funded the other third. By last year, those ratios had almost entirely flipped, so that state funding now pays for a little more than one-third of the cost and tuition makes up the rest. It costs almost half of an average Virginia resident’s disposable income to pay to attend public college in the state.

Ever-rising tuition bills take a disproportionate toll on students of color. Every $1,000 tuition increase for full-time undergraduate students is associated with a drop in campus diversity of almost 6 percent at public colleges and universities, according to a study earlier this year by researchers at New York University and the City University of New York.

The shrinking stream of state money also pushes colleges to accept students who have less need, both academically and financially. At UVA, in-state fees and tuition come to under $15,000 while the out-of-state cost is just shy of $44,000.

Education researchers say high-flying public universities are caught in a bind.

“If you’re running a college and you don’t want to get fired, you have to climb in the rankings, so you’ve got to get students with higher test scores, especially if you’re a public institution,” said Carnevale. “The legislature wants to see better graduation rates and [yet] you’re getting less and less money.”

Economics do not fully explain the racial gap. Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of low-income students increased at almost every public college, as many white families suffered job losses as a result of the recession. But at most flagships, the percentage of African-American students declined.

And while lower grades and test scores play a role in who has access to these top public universities, they don’t explain away the large discrepancy between the number of enrolled white and black students.

Black and Latino students who have above-average SAT scores go to college at the same rate — 90 percent — as whites. But once enrolled, white students are more likely to finish, in part because they attend more selective colleges, where the resources are better and overall graduation rates are higher.

When black and Latino students with above-average SAT scores go to those selective colleges, their graduation rate is 73 percent, compared to only 40 percent for these above-average-scoring nonwhite students at other colleges.

Related: Communities come together to increase college-going from the ground up

This is why state flagships play such an important role: They a offer better chance at success for all students, especially African-American and Latino students, because they are better funded and offer more support services to help students graduate. The more who are admitted, this reasoning goes, the more who will have a good chance to succeed.

“I think that there are more kids who could be successful at UVA if they were given a chance,” said Rashad Ferebee, an African-American guidance counselor at a public high school in Norfolk, Virginia. “You want the best of the best, but you have to let us in if you want us to graduate.”

Many black Virginians don’t even apply to UVA, weighing the advantages of its academic and other resources against the potential for isolation or discrimination.

Black prospective applicants who visit campus “are not blind,” said Aryn Frazier, president of the Black Student Alliance at UVA. “You can give black students a graduate student to spend the night with, and invite all black students down on the same weekend, but I think at the end of the day people can see the culture at UVA.”

They see more faces like theirs at other schools that may lack UVA’s pedigree.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come here was the diverse student body,” said Danielle Campbell, a junior at Norfolk State University, a historically black public college in Virginia. “I didn’t want to be the only one who looked like me.”

NSU has a proud history and a devoted student body, but last year struggled with a $16.7 million budget deficit causing it to cut staff by 9 percent. It is the least expensive four-year public college in the state, but its graduation rate for black students is 35 percent over six years, compared with 86 percent at UVA, according to federal data.

Related: Californians increasingly can’t get into state’s public colleges

In Petersburg, about 90 minutes southeast of UVA’s campus, the high school is 92 percent African-American and sends more than half of its 800 students to college each year. But none have gone UVA since 2010.

“Before any child wants to go anywhere, a college needs to make it clear that they’re not treating races differently,” said Alicia Fields, who has been the principal at Petersburg for a decade. “We do have children who I believe could do well at UVA.”

UVA spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn said that more aggressive and targeted recruiting efforts and expanded scholarships have allowed it to accept and enroll slightly more black students over the past four years. “Still, the university has more work to do,” he wrote in an email.

The state’s top higher education official is pushing for more aggressive action, such as lowering the cost of college and expanding outreach to underserved students.

“These issues are at the forefront of a lot of policymakers’ minds right now,” said Peter Blake, director the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which is the commonwealth’s coordinating body for higher education. “To close the achievement gap and broaden the number of people in Virginia who are getting a college degree, UVA as well as the community colleges are going to have to work a little harder.”

Black Student Alliance leaders at UVA led protest marches last spring after police officers roughed up a black student, and wrote a 26-page document with recommendations for what the university could do to improve conditions.

“One of the things that black students have historically and continue to push for at UVA is that at the flagship the demographics be at least as representative as the demographics of the state,” said Frazier, who is a junior at UVA. “The flagship is meant to be the main force educating that state, so every group should be educated at a similar rate.”

This story was produced by The Huffington Post and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive