ATHENS, Ga. — Uchenna Ihekwereme walked to the front row of the 150-person auditorium for a political science class at the University of Georgia. She sat down, as she always did, with her back to the sea of white faces. She had become accustomed to being the only Black student in her classes, but it could still be unsettling.
Her hand went up during a discussion when a student compared the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol with the Black Lives Matter movement. She was the only one to argue that an effort to violently overturn a valid election was different from protesting against police brutality and racism.
“I didn’t want a false narrative to be pushed about the Black community,” Ihekwereme said.
A junior, she has been the only Black student in close to three-quarters of the courses she has taken and one of a handful in all but one. “It was a total culture shock” after attending a racially diverse high school, she said. “I don’t feel like I’m in danger, but I don’t necessarily feel safe.”
For at least a decade, the University of Georgia has failed to enroll Black students at a rate proportionate to the number of Black high school graduates in the state. In 2020, just 6 percent of freshmen who enrolled at the university were Black, compared with 36 percent of the state’s public high school graduates.
Among state flagship universities, UGA has one of the country’s largest disparities between its proportion of Black students and that of Black high school graduates from the state — second only to the University of Mississippi.
Such racial disparities may be concentrated in the South, but they are pervasive throughout the country. There are 13 flagship universities where the gap between the percentage of Black students who graduated from public high schools in that state in 2020 and Black freshman enrollment is 10 percentage points or more. And at 30 of these flagship universities, the gap has stayed the same or grown in the last five years.
State flagship universities are funded primarily through tax dollars, and their missions include providing an accessible and high-quality education to academically capable residents of their states. They often boast the highest graduation rates among public colleges; provide the top-level academic resources that allow students to succeed; and come with prestige and alumni connections that can launch careers.
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” said Wil Del Pilar, who is the vice president of higher education at The Education Trust, a think tank focused on equity. “Public institutions — they should look like the taxpayers in the state. There’s no way you can say these are representative institutions.”
UGA, like all flagship universities, benefits greatly from residents’ tax dollars. It receives more in state appropriations this fiscal year — $483 million — than any other public higher education institution in the state.
Its undergraduate population of 32,800 is the third largest in the state, behind Kennesaw State and Georgia State; when both undergraduate and graduate students are counted, it ranks third behind Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech.
UGA officials said the university is actively working to increase Black representation on campus.
“Black students admitted to UGA — they have a lot of options,” said Alton Standifer, deputy chief of staff to the university president, referring to the competition among colleges to enroll Georgia’s Black students. “What we’re doing is trying to communicate to them that this is a place where we want them to enroll. We want them here, we want them to become a part of the community.”
Last year, the university approved a five-year program aimed at increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students and need-based financial aid, and creating a more inclusive learning environment. UGA also committed to raising $1 million in private money to support the program.
But the program has not yet had an impact on the number of Black students who have accepted an offer from UGA. In 2021, among the 5,815 students who accepted a seat, 432 were Black, down from 488 out of 5,743 in 2018, according to data provided by the university.
Some advocates for Black students say the university doesn’t spend enough time recruiting at majority-Black high schools. UGA officials said they send current UGA students to high schools around the state to encourage students who are underrepresented to apply to and attend the university. But they said they don’t keep a record of which high schools they visit.
For Black students who do go to UGA, there are undeniable rewards. Among the state’s 62 four-year colleges, only the private, elite Emory University has a higher graduation rate for Black students than UGA, raising the question of how many more Black Georgians could earn college degrees if UGA were to open its doors more widely.
Flush with resources, UGA spent more per student in 2021 on instruction than any other public college in the state except the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and Augusta University, which means students get strong academic support and a better chance to graduate. At $1.36 billion, its endowment ranks second among all public universities in the state, after Georgia Tech; so does the median annual salary of nearly $60,000 earned by its students 10 years after enrolling. And its vast alumni network stretches globally across hundreds of companies, giving graduates a potential leg up in their careers.
Still, many Black students in Georgia choose to attend more diverse institutions or opt for a historically Black college or university.
Ayesha Youssouf, who was accepted to the highly selective Georgia Tech as well as Georgia State University, didn’t even apply to UGA. She said her sister had transferred from there to Georgia State because she hadn’t felt comfortable on the flagship campus.
“It made me think maybe UGA is not for me,” said Youssouf, who is in her second year at Georgia State, where, in 2020, 41 percent of students were Black. She turned down Georgia Tech because of the cost, and because it, too, has a small minority of Black students (7 percent).
But for every Black student who is admitted and chooses not to go, college counselors say, many more who could succeed are rejected.
Erica Clark is a professional school counselor at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, where 97 percent of the 870 students are Black. Clark said UGA has made some efforts to recruit a more diverse group of students; however, she said, every year she has students who are rejected though she believes they could succeed at the University of Georgia.
“We still have well-rounded students at Booker T. Washington High School and throughout Atlanta Public Schools who would thrive at UGA, if extended the opportunity,” said Clark, who has been a public school educator for 28 years.
Several administrators at public schools in Atlanta and the surrounding area said they believe the university focuses too much on standardized test scores, without enough consideration of grades and extracurricular achievement, except in athletics. Average SAT scores for admitted students rose to 1,347 in fall 2019, from 1,252 four years earlier — an increase of almost 100 points. A reliance on SAT scores can disadvantage Black students, whose average SAT score in 2019 was 933, more than 180 points below that of white students.
Like all Georgia’s public colleges, and many others nationally, UGA didn’t require SAT or ACT scores in 2021, because of the pandemic, and the number of Black students accepted that year jumped to 1,052, a 34 percent increase from the year before. But for 2022, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents decided that UGA was one of three public colleges in Georgia that had to require SAT or ACT test scores.
Standifer said the university doesn’t rely primarily on test scores and has used a holistic approach to admissions for years. He said Black student admissions increased in 2021 because UGA began using the Common Application, which allows students to use the same online form to apply to many colleges at once. Students can more quickly apply to multiple colleges, since they don’t have to navigate different application systems and can upload required documents to one site. Selective public universities like UGA that use the Common App have seen an increase in applicants, including traditionally underrepresented students, such as Black students.
Ken Dozier is one of those students whose high GPA was overshadowed by average test scores. He didn’t get into UGA, even though he graduated in the top 10 of his class, he said, at LaGrange High School, about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta. Instead, Dozier, who is Black, enrolled at the University of West Georgia.
“I did want to go to UGA, but I didn’t score high enough on the SAT,” he said, taking a break from shooting hoops on a basketball court at the University of West Georgia’s campus.
“I’m glad I’m here, though. When I toured UGA, I was looking around and was like, would I be comfortable here?”
The percentage of Black students enrolled at the University of West Georgia, which is about an hour west of Atlanta, grew to 38 percent from 27 percent from 2010 to 2020. During that same period, the percentage of Black students at UGA didn’t budge.
West Georgia administrators say the change was not accidental. Their focus has been on creating a “culture of belongingness and connectedness.” They say providing high-quality academic programs that can attract students is as important as recruiting students at diverse high schools.
“If you look at the percentage of Black students 10 years ago, we did not match the population of this region or the state of Georgia; then you’re underserving the state,” said Brendan Kelly, president of the University of West Georgia. “Our mission is to make certain that we can provide a world-class education to the many, not the few.”
UGA’s admissions policy is not the only factor keeping the percentage of Black students at UGA low. Students say the expense and whether they feel the university will support them play significant roles.
UGA created a need-based scholarship program in 2017 that supports more than 650 students from low-income backgrounds. Still, families who make $48,000 to $75,000 a year pay, on average, more than $15,000 each year — meaning students must come up with more than $60,000 out of pocket or take out loans to finish college.
Cameron Bell graduated last spring from Westlake High School in Atlanta and was accepted to UGA. But she decided to attend Tuskegee University in Alabama, an HBCU that gave her a full ride, allowing her to graduate without debt. She was also impressed by its program in computer science, her intended major, with a minor in business administration.
“My parents both went there, and they’re successful,” she said.
Bell, along with many of her classmates, rejects the idea that her individual choices are to blame for the lack of diversity at the state flagship.
Sitting in a Westlake classroom in March with several other high-achieving seniors, none of whom are going to UGA, she said, “If you’re going to sit back and say, ‘They’re doing the choosing, how is it our fault?’ that means that you’re not making yourself relevant.”
This story about flagship universities was produced as part of a collaboration between NBCNews.com and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.