In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule about whether colleges can consider race in admissions decisions, deciding two cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina. The case against affirmative action is based on the argument that some colleges are discriminating against Asian and white students and giving an unfair advantage to Black and Latino students.
Eighteen state flagship universities – the jewels in the crowns of public university systems –now allow for the consideration of race as one of many factors in admission decisions. At least 30 also consider whether a student is the first in their family to go to college and 11 take into account whether an applicant is related to an alum of the college, also known as “legacy admissions,” according to the universities’ most recent Common Data Set, which they submit annually. Whether they consider these factors or not, many flagships have had poor records recruiting Black and Latino high school graduates to enroll.
At most state flagship universities, Black and Latino students are still very much underrepresented.
In 14 states, the gap between the number of public high school graduates who are Black and the number of Black students who enroll in the state flagship was 10 percentage points or more in 2021.
Flagships in southern states have some of the widest such gaps for Black students.
In Mississippi, 48 percent of high school graduates were Black in 2021 but only 8 percent of first-year students at Ole Miss, the state’s flagship, were Black.
The gap at the University of Georgia has grown over the past two years to 31 percentage points. In 2021, just 2 percent of incoming first-year students were Black men.
Eight of the 10 flagships with the biggest gaps for Black students do not consider race in admissions.
The Supreme Court ruling could also have a big impact on Latino students. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, does consider race in admissions but already has the second biggest gap for Latino students in the country.
In 12 states, the gap between the number of students who graduated from state public high schools who were Latino and the number of Latino students enrolled at the state flagship was 10 percentage points or more.
The gap at 10 of those universities – concentrated in the Southwest – has widened over the past five years.
The University of California at Berkeley has the biggest gap – 34 percentage points. The state banned affirmative action in 1996.
The University of Texas at Austin has reduced its gap some in the last five years, but it’s still significant at 23 percentage points.
Of the 12 states with the biggest gap for Latino students, four consider race in admissions.
Why does it matter that so many of these colleges don’t look like their state’s graduating high school classes? Public flagships were created to educate the residents of their states and most make that explicit. The University of South Carolina’s mission statement, for example, begins, “The primary mission of the University of South Carolina Columbia is the education of the state’s citizens through teaching, research, creative activity, and community engagement.” Still, it has the third largest gap for Black students in the country.
State flagships are funded by residents’ tax dollars, and last year they enrolled a combined 1.1 million undergraduate students. Many states have other high-quality state universities, but the flagships often have the most resources, the best graduation rates and graduates’ salaries, and powerful alumni networks that help can launch students’ careers.
Why does it matter if flagship enrollment is racially equitable?
In most states, flagship graduates also earned the highest or second-highest salaries compared with graduates of other public universities.
At 48 of the 50 flagships, the graduation rate was the highest or second-highest among public universities in the state.
The flagship universities where Black and Latino students were the most underrepresented also had the highest graduation rates.
Officials at several of the state flagships that consider race in admissions said they are concerned that the Supreme Court’s ruling could make it more difficult to enroll a racially diverse student body that reflects their state’s populations. Seven of the 18 universities that consider race in admissions already have a gap of 14 percentage points or more between the percentage of Black or Latino students who graduated from the state’s public high schools in 2021 and the percentage who enrolled in the flagships that fall. Some officials said they feared that the court’s ruling would go beyond admissions. They worry that scholarships targeted at underrepresented populations, for example, or sponsored campus visits for college chapters of groups like the National Society of Black Engineers, could be prohibited.
“Our priority is to serve the residents of the state,” said Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But if we’re restricted from asking questions about race and ethnicity, it’s going to be really difficult to be able to measure whether we’re meeting our mission as an institution.”
The University of Maryland has struggled to enroll Black students in numbers that reflect the state’s demographics, and officials say that prohibiting the consideration of race in admissions will make that effort more difficult.
“We remain committed to recruiting and retaining the most diverse classes possible,” Shannon Gundy, assistant vice president at Maryland, said in an email, “but will not lose sight that this fact remains true: when pursuing the most diverse and talented class, there is no proxy for considering a student’s race.”
New York state designated a second flagship, Stony Brook University, in 2022 and it was not included in this analysis. (Its gap for Black and Latino students was 11 and 12 percentage points, respectively, in 2021.)
Olivia Sanchez contributed reporting
Development by Fazil Khan
This story about race in college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.