Flagship universities’ racial demographics out of sync with the states they serve

Known for their academics, affordability, and graduation rates, public flagship universities can be a powerful source of economic mobility. But in many states, a disproportionately small share of Black and Latinx students have access to those benefits.

A new analysis of federal data conducted by The Hechinger Report and The Washington Post highlights “the enduring disconnect” between the racial makeup of many flagship universities and that of their home states.

As of 2019, the proportion of Black students in the freshman class at 15 state flagships was at least 10 percentage points lower than the proportion of Black students among the state’s high school graduates. Mississippi had the largest gap: Black students made up 49 percent of public high school graduates in the state but just 10 percent of the University of Mississippi’s freshman class in fall 2019.

Admissions approach a key factor

Some experts say the gap reflects those institutions’ admissions approach. “The issue is not that there aren’t enough qualified Black and Latino students,” says Tomás Monarrez, who researches racial representation in education at The Urban Institute. “It’s about who they’re choosing to accept,” he says, adding that many flagships approach admissions “basically like an Ivy League institution.”

Some are prioritizing recruitment of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition and often hail from white, higher-income families. Out-of-state students, for instance, account for more than half of incoming freshmen at the University of Mississippi.

Other flagships say they’re hampered by state laws banning public universities from considering race when making admissions decisions. Officials at the University of Michigan—where 4 percent of the 2019 freshman class was Black, compared with 17 percent of the state’s high school graduates—note that Latinx and Black student representation on campus shrank after a 2006 state law banned affirmative action in public college admissions.

U. of Maryland working to recruit, retain more students of color

To improve representation, flagship universities like the University of Maryland are expanding outreach and focusing on their campus climate.

After seeing the share of Black students fall to 7 percent of its incoming class in fall 2018, the University of Maryland stepped up communication with high school seniors, hired admissions staff focused on diversity, and prioritized fundraising for scholarships to help increase access for underserved students in the region.

By fall 2019, Black student representation had rebounded slightly to 10 percent of incoming freshmen—still 24 percentage points lower than Black students’ representation among Maryland high school graduates. Latinx student representation also lagged at 7 percent of incoming freshmen, compared with 14 percent of Maryland public high school graduates.

University of Maryland leaders say they will continue to push for greater diversity, in part by focusing on the college pipeline. Through a program called Maryland Ascent, the university pairs Baltimore high school students who would be the first in their family to graduate from college with college admissions staff, who advise on the college application process. The university also has launched a dual enrollment calculus course for local high school students.

Messaging is crucial, too, advocates say. Saba Tshibaka, a University of Maryland senior and organizer with the student group Black Terps Matter, says some college recruiters overlook opportunities to promote their campuses’ multicultural organizations and other academic and social programming that might appeal to Black high school students.

Monica Goldson, chief executive of Prince George’s County schools in Maryland, adds that flagship universities need to make clear to students that they “have what it takes in order to get in.” Goldson is working with the University of Maryland and other education leaders to strengthen inroads to the flagship, both from high schools and from local community colleges.

Related: How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline >

“Our ability to be able to foster a seamless connection from the high school experience to the community college experience, and then being able to provide supports to them beyond is critical in helping to improve and increase the number of children of color that have access to four-year universities,” Goldson said.

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