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The United States is becoming more diverse, but its most selective public colleges and universities are not.

In a new report from The Education Trust, 101 of the most selective public colleges and universities were graded on how they’re doing at having Black and Latino student enrollment match the percent of college-age Black and Latino students in their states. The nonprofit organization, which advocates for low-income and underrepresented minority students, compared the percentage of Black and Latino youth between ages 18 and 24 in each state with the percentage of these students at each institution in the year 2000 and in the year 2017.

At almost 60 percent of these colleges and universities, the percentage of Black students has actually declined since 2000, the report found. And only 9 percent of these institutions enroll a percentage of Black students that’s comparable to the percentage of young Black adults in their states. The colleges and universities in the states with the largest Black populations were the least accessible for Black students, according to The Education Trust.

The institutions are doing better at enrolling Latino students – 100 percent of institutions had increased their share of Latino students since 2000 – but the gains are marginal. The enrollment increase was between 2.1 and 5 percentage points at 49 percent of institutions. About 14 percent of all the colleges and universities included in the report have representative numbers of Latino enrollment.

“Tragically, too many college leaders and policymakers are really standing in the way of racial equity in higher ed,” said Andrew Nichols, senior director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust. “They have the rhetoric that suggests they value diversity, equity and inclusion, but their actions or their inaction proves otherwise.”

Related: Many state flagship universities leave black and Latino students behind

These 101 institutions were deemed selective because of one or more of these factors: their status as flagship institutions, level of research activity, average SAT and ACT scores for enrolled students or state designation as a public honors college. They are better resourced than most other institutions, which makes them better equipped to improve Black and Latino enrollment, Nichols said, even when Covid-19 has affected millions of Americans and upended higher education systems.

“Institutions have to stop looking for the perfect Black student or the perfect Latino student. They have to recognize that they’re going to have to change their admission criteria somewhat because of the obstacles these students face, the schools these students are enrolled in.” 

Maureen Hoyler, president, Council for Opportunity in Education

There are two reasons these institutions have not invested in Black and Latino students more, according to Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit group that works with colleges, universities and agencies to help low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities enter college and graduate.

First, there’s been a decades-long disinvestment in higher education overall, which has shaped which types of students are encouraged to apply and enroll.

“As resources to institutions decrease, the support available and the incentive to go out and recruit and retain students that have greater [financial] need takes a back seat,” Hoyler said.

The second reason, Hoyler said, is systemic racism. White college students often come from wealthier households, requiring less financial aid to pay for college, and from wealthier schools, which in turn helps them achieve better grade-point averages and stronger test scores than their Black and Latino peers.

More than 70 percent of Black college students in the 2015-2016 year received Pell grants, a type of federal aid for students with the most need, compared to 34 percent of white students, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. About 60 percent of Latino students receive federal aid. Also, the average SAT score for Black and Latino students is usually much lower than for their white counterparts. In 2018, the mean scores were 946 for Black students, 990 for Latino students and 1123 for white students.

Related: ‘Black At’ Instagram accounts put campus racism on display

Many higher education experts say one way that colleges and universities can improve enrollment is by changing their admissions standards.

“Institutions have to stop looking for the perfect Black student or the perfect Latino student,” Hoyler said. “They have to recognize that they’re going to have to change their admission criteria somewhat because of the obstacles these students face, the schools these students are enrolled in.”

Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, recommends institutions rethink legacy admissions standards, too, as well as the emphasis placed on standardized test scores in admissions.

These institutions are so powerful that they can change policy, as they recently did when President Donald Trump attempted to ban international students from returning to the U.S. if their schooling were to take place fully online, Jones said.

“There might be barriers in place, but these institutions have enormous power, influence and resources, and we just expect them to use them to fight for Black and Brown students, just like they do [for] anyone else they care about,” she said.

This story about student enrollment 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. 

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