The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities

Minority college enrollment has skyrocketed, but the black share of the student bodies at top research schools has barely budged in 20 years.

Members of the University of Missouri black student protest group, Concerned Student 1950, raise their arms while addressing a crowd following the announcement in early November that university president Tim Wolfe would resign.  (Jeff Roberson / AP)

Over the past 20 years, black enrollment in colleges and universities has skyrocketed. It’s a huge success story, one that’s due to the hard work of black families, college admissions officers, and education advocates. But at top-tier universities in the United States, it’s a different story. There, the share of students who are black has actually dropped since 1994.

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically.

This statistic put the recent campus discussions on race in a different light: less a spontaneous uprising of discontent, and more an inevitability.

“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.”

There’s no question that top-tier schools are becoming more diverse. White students made up 58 percent of the student body in 2013, down from 72 percent in 1994. Universities have also recruited more Hispanics, the United States’ largest minority group.

But indifference to black students isn’t an issue colleges can afford to take lightly. “Young black folks are refusing alteration or the mollification of conformity and are simply demanding justice,” the New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote. And the numbers are their side.