Why is diversity lagging at top public schools? Temple U. could offer clues.

Noting that many top public institutions are struggling to increase diversity on campus, the Philadelphia Inquirer recently highlighted the shrinking share of Black students at Temple University, the forces at work, and how campus leaders are taking action. Temple, Philadelphia’s only four-year public college, has long had a mission to serve its surrounding community, which includes some of the nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Yet, as the 37,000-student university has increased its enrollment and profile in recent decades, Black students’ representation on campus dwindled. As of 2016-17, Black students made up 12.6 percent of Temple undergraduates, compared with more than 28 percent in the late 1990s.

Temple officials note that other student demographics shifted during that timeframe, too. Latinx student representation has increased from 3 percent of students in the late 1990s to 8.3 percent currently. The university’s share of Asian/Pacific Islander students also increased from 9 percent to 12.7 percent.

A challenge well beyond Temple

Black students have had decreasing access to many of the nation’s most selective public institutions across the last 20 years, according to research from the Education Trust.

Related: 50-state report card shows many public colleges and universities under-serving Black students >

Some experts point to rising costs. “Almost without doing anything, institutions that don’t dramatically reduce their costs are going to have the risk of inequity in some of their outcomes,” David Hawkins, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s chief education and policy officer, told the Inquirer.

Access barriers for Philadelphia students

At Temple, weak state funding and the university’s competitive ambitions have combined to drive tuition, room and board, and fees up to $30,500 for in-state students. That drive to compete with other institutions also shifted the university’s admissions standards.

A focus on admitting students with higher SAT scores disadvantaged some Black applicants who had minimal access to test prep resources. Temple has been test-optional since 2015 but until last year used the scores, in combination with grade point averages, as the sole criteria for awarding merit aid.

As the university became more competitive, students at some Philadelphia high schools saw their access shrink. In 2016, Temple’s most selective year, applicants from most Philadelphia high schools had acceptance rates well below the university’s average of 52 percent.

A lack of faculty diversity also could be deterring Black students. Seventy percent of Temple’s tenured professors are white; just 5 percent are Black, and few are full professors.

Faculty and other community stakeholders say they have urged university leaders to address the shrinking number of Black students at Temple. “The numbers do not make sense and we need a student body that reflects the community,” said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is from Philadelphia and graduated from Temple in 2012. “We are missing a big part of what Temple should be and it has been.”

Temple leaders taking action

Temple officials say they are working to build a more representative campus community. “Temple dropped the ball for a period of time,” said Shawn Abbott, Temple’s vice provost for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management, adding that the university “had almost lulled itself into a sense of complacency” about its diversity given its location in “one of the most historic African American communities in the United States.”

Since Abbott started working at Temple in 2018, the university has diversified its admissions staff. Now, almost 60 percent of the university’s U.S. recruiters are people of color, and the team has stepped up outreach to local high schools.

The university recently launched a new full-tuition scholarship program for low-income students at North Philadelphia public schools. Temple also has revamped its merit aid criteria to look beyond just SATs and GPAs and consider academic rigor, language skills, students’ first-generation status, and their neighborhood and employment situation.

More than 15 percent of students in Temple’s most recent first-year class are from Philadelphia, and 17 percent of first-year students are Black, Abbot said. More than 45 percent are students of color, up from 31 percent in 2016.

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