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. (Low-income students are also underrepresented at top schools).
Virginia is hardly unusual. At most flagships, the African-American percentage of the student population that is black 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. (Low-income students are also underrepresented at top schools, according to an analysis by the Hechinger Report and HuffPost ).
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 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, the state’s flagship.
In the firestorm that followed Justice Scalia’s 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 went up…
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…
“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.
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…
“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.”