“When you already have an issue around inclusion ... these incidents of late heighten that perception and confirm that perception,” said Tyrone Howard, an associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA and director of the university’s Black Male Institute. “It gives some students of color some pause—do I really want to go to a place that, at least from the optics, suggests they’re not inclusive?”
Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994.
Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.
But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years. (It’s less than half of what their share of the population might suggest; the Census reports that 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 are black.) While some schools have had success—the University of Missouri’s main campus has actually increased its black share by 3 percentage points since 1994—the median school barely budged.
(At Harvard, for example, 6.5 percent of undergraduates were black in 2013, down from 7.4 percent in 1994.)
Researchers say top-tier schools have left black students behind in their push for ever-more-selective admission rates. Many rely heavily on measures that disadvantage minority students, including standardized test scores. The greater emphasis on such criteria has left high school counselors in predominantly black schools underprepared to respond. And tighter admissions may have prompted high school counselors to steer black students toward less selective schools.
“Those schools don’t have as much support around college prep as they should. As a result, those students are woefully in the dark about their college options,” Howard said. “If a student shows he or she has a profile that would be considered at UCLA or Berkeley, if no one at the school or a counselor or an administrator helps the student to recognize it, that student shoots for a [less-selective] state school instead.”
But simply admitting more black students isn’t enough. Persistently lower graduation rates among black students show that promising enrollment numbers alone won’t build an inclusive campus. The curriculum matters, academics say, as does support. So does the diversity of the faculty.
“Even at places that are impressively diverse, students still feel very much on the fringes,” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “Simply having more students of color on a college campus does not ensure that they are going to feel included and respected.”