A call for greater racial diversity at flagship public universities

Flagship public universities are often their regions’ largest, most prominent institutions of higher learning, but their enrollment rarely reflects the diversity of their home state’s public high school graduates. Focusing on Louisiana State University (LSU), which is predominantly white but has taken steps to enroll more students of color, The Hechinger Report recently explored why “the lack of Black students on campus isn’t just a moral problem; it’s bad for the financial future of the university.”

Working to shrink a significant diversity gap

Louisiana, a state that struggled with race relations for decades, has the lowest rate of black college graduates in the country. In fall 2016, Black students made up just 13 percent of LSU’s freshman class but accounted for 44 percent of the state’s high school graduates that year.

The university is actively working to close that gap, however, while other states’ flagship institutions are seeing theirs widen. LSU President F. King Alexander says that declining enrollments, combined with cuts to state budgets, make it all the more crucial for flagship institutions to attract and retain students. Given that students of color make up more than half of public school students under age 18 and are a growing segment of the population, “if we don’t pay attention to demographic trends, many of our institutions are going to be left out in the cold for decades,” Alexander told The Hechinger Report.

Alexander voices concern that other universities may be more focused on rankings than answering the call for greater racial diversity. “Universities need to quit worrying about U.S. News and prestige and start worrying about their mission,” Alexander said. “I’ve got way too many of my colleagues that are chasing things that mean nothing. They end up reducing opportunities that they are supposed to be providing for their state.”

Prioritizing outreach, holistic admissions

When he became president in 2013, Alexander prioritized reaching out to underrepresented communities, not only as “the right, moral move” but also as “a financial imperative,” writes The Hechinger Report. He became the faculty liaison to the university’s NAACP branch; encouraged changes within the Greek system; and hired Jose Aviles, who had been a first-generation college student himself, to take over as chief enrollment officer for undergraduate admissions.

Recognizing the importance of visibility and relationships in showing students “not just that we want them but that there is a picture of success for them here,” Aviles helped create a more intentional recruiting plan that involved visiting rural high schools and taking a holistic approach to admissions. “We deepened what we understand as merit,” Aviles said. “If you’re just selecting students on board scores, those things alone are not enough to determine whether a student can be successful on your campus or not.” The university also expanded its scholarship offerings.

The changes, Aviles and Alexander said, helped increase the number of black students and Latine students in the freshman class by 51 and 35 percent, respectively, between 2017 and 2018. Last fall, the university enrolled the most diverse freshman class in the school’s history.

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