The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

NEW YORK – As anguish and impassioned protests grow over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, so do the statements from college presidents proclaiming support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black students in higher education
Mari Chiles, an undergraduate student at Yale University, says the college has “fostered an environment that questions whether black students like me are smart enough to be there.” Credit: Photo by Melissa Alexander

My inbox is flooded with condemnations of inequality. But they strike me as little more than lip service. Higher education, as we know from our unwavering focus on inequality at The Hechinger Report, has a long way to go before black students and faculty members are both well-represented and comfortable on college campuses. The racial divide on campus has been getting wider, not narrower.

Just ask Mari Chiles, who told us of her pain and isolation at Yale University, where she’ll be a senior this fall. “They have yet to disarm their campus police and have fostered an environment that questions whether black students like me are smart enough to be there,” Chiles wrote. Yale enrolls 5,964 undergraduate students; 447 of them, or 7.5 percent, are black, compared to more than 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Ask Daniel Inoa, an Afro-Latino Dartmouth student, who described getting suspicious looks when he showed up at a fraternity party or shopped for cereal off campus. Or Anthony Jack,  who wondered where all the other black students were when he enrolled at Amherst College in 2003, and whose new book “The Privileged Poor” calls for better campus support for underrepresented low-income students.

It’s hardly just elite, Ivy League schools where blacks feel left out. Our reporting has repeatedly shown that black students are woefully underrepresented at top public colleges, the ones with better graduation rates. The better resourced, most coveted campuses are repeatedly leaving both black and Latino students behind, even at a time when children of color make up the majority of public school students under age 18.

And no wonder, as many universities have shifted their financial aid to higher-income (usually white) students who can afford to pay at least part of the tuition. That’s why some of the carefully worded statements I’ve read from college presidents strike me as tone deaf: What about acknowledging the many ways higher education continues to leave black students behind?

Related: Facts about race and ethnicity in college admissions

Even after decades of violence, court interventions and scattered victories, a legacy of racism and exclusion of blacks in higher education still exists. “Some states could double, triple, or quadruple the number of Black bachelor’s degree earners and still not approach an equitable percentage,” wrote J. Oliver Schak, co-author of a 2019 Ed Trust report about black student representation at public colleges and universities.

Our reporting has shown black students being “priced out” of higher education institutions in Illinois; many in that state are also leaving college with more debt than comparable white students. We also found that at Kent State University at Ashtabula, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time black students has been zero for five years running, according to federal data.

Are college presidents going to provide the financial and academic support needed by black students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college and have attended poorly resourced public high schools?

Are they going to reconsider business decisions that hurt black students, such as sorting them into dorms and dining halls that separate rich and poor (which too often that means white and nonwhite) by what they can afford to pay? Will they continue to dole out more merit aid money to higher-income students? Will state legislatures maintain their record of big cuts in education spending, which will disproportionately hurt schools with higher numbers of poor students and students of color?

“We’ve not done a good enough job. We should look like the state we are serving. We need to be smarter about ways to grow the black student population.”

 Dr. Mark Schissel, president, University of Michigan

At the same time, there are some schools that are making strides. Because we are relentlessly focused on solutions – and eager to hear more of them – we’ve showcased some, like Louisiana State University, that are pushing harder to do better – even though Louisiana State is still far whiter than the state it serves.

Flagship universities nearby would do well to take notice: the universities of  both Alabama and Missouri are enrolling fewer African-American students than they have in the recent past.  

Related: Racial diversity as a financial necessity at state universities

Others, like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, also have a long way to go – and are acknowledging it. This fall, blacks made up just 4 percent of the university’s 31,266 undergraduates, school data show. Overall, only 8.7 percent of undergraduates at Michigan’s 15 public universities are black, the Ed Trust report found. Just 25.9 percent of black residents have a college degree compared with 41.6 percent of whites in the state.

During a virtual town hall at the University of Michigan on June 5, 2020, the college president, students and other officials discussed how they could fight racism. Credit: Screenshot/University of Michigan

In recent years, a spate of racially charged incidents has created an outcry among black students at the flagship. Their pain has been exacerbated by isolation due to the coronavirus, along with anguish over the recent shootings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

“We’ve not done a good enough job,” the university’s president, Mark Schlissel, said during a virtual town hall broadcast on YouTube last Friday. “We should look like the state we are serving. We need to be smarter about ways to grow the black student population.”

Naomi Wilson, a graduate student who participated in the University of Michigan panel, said it was time to go beyond words.

In fall of 21019, blacks made up 4 percent of the University of Michigan’s 31,266  undergraduates, school data show. Overall, only 8.7 percent of undergraduates at Michigan’s 15 public universities are black, an Ed Trust report found.

“Let’s move into action. Let’s talk about how we are increasing mental health resources, and having more therapists of color, [or] who are black,” Wilson said, listing just a few areas where she thought progress could be made.

Darlena York, an undergraduate on the panel, said increasing the number of black faculty and staff would be helpful, but our reporting has found many college campuses that promised to do that have not made much progress – even as research shows minority students are more likely to be successful when taught by minority professors.

One out of every five tenure-track black professors can be found at one of the 72 historically black four-year institutions that report the race of their employees. And many of the largely white four-year public and nonprofit colleges and universities that have been promising for years to improve the diversity of their teaching ranks have made no progress or have slid backward, federal data analyzed by The Hechinger Report show.

Black students in higher education
A University of Mississippi student was convicted of placing a noose on this statue of James Meredith, who became known for his bravery integrating the university amid rioting in 1962. Credit: John Korduner / Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What will it take to change? In 2016, a student at the University of Mississippi went to jail for placing a noose and a flag with the Confederate battle emblem on the campus statue of James Meredith, the civil rights activist who finally integrated the university in 1962, after violent riots and the intervention of the National Guard.

A few years later, students told us that racist incidents on campus were very much still a part of life there. Last month, university president Glenn Boyce issued one of the many predictable statements we have seen, condemning racism and the cycle of African American deaths at the hands of police officers.

Boyce went further, though: He agreed to remove from campus a Confederate monument that has long divided the school – after it was vandalized with black spray paint covering all four sides saying “spiritual genocide.”

Ole Miss, as it is known, has an even longer way to go if it truly wants to be more inclusive for blacks. Mississippi had the widest gap in the nation — 40 percentage points —between the percentage of African-American students who graduated from public high schools in the state and the percentage who entered the flagship university in the fall, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of 2015 data.

I would love to see college presidents go beyond press releases. A few years ago, we published a story filled with good ideas and suggestions that are still relevant, such as doing a better job supporting first-generation students and students of color, and improving counseling and making their success a campus-wide priority.

It’s time to hold these colleges accountable.

“It is really easy to get back to your routine once the crisis passes,” Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, wrote in a recent op-ed. “It made me wonder, what impact have we made over the past three years?  Did we set goals to address issues like racism that impact our everyday lives?”

He called for “no more statements.” Like us, Kimbrough is tired of rhetoric and ready for change.

This story on Black students in higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *