Many state’s “flagship” universities say diversity is a leading focus and priority when it comes to admissions, but a new look at data from these schools shows the reality: enrollment of students of color continues to lag.
Flagship universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tend to be the most popular and well-known universities in the state, the first founded in a given state and the most financially supported by the state government. And among almost all of these schools, diversity is always said to be a priority. But Lauren Lumpkin, Meredith Kolodner and Nick Anderson of The Washington Post have reported that, almost universally, enrollment of Black, Latinx and other diverse populations at flagship institutions has continued to drop in recent years.
“Alarms sounded at the University of Maryland when the Class of 2022 arrived at College Park. Seven percent of freshmen in fall 2018 were Black, down from 10% the year before and 13% in 2014,” The Post reported.
That’s just one example of the growing disconnect and disparity between racial demographics at flagship schools and the states they are located in.
“Fifteen state flagships had at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of Black public high school graduates in their states in 2019 and the Black share of freshmen they enrolled that fall,” Lumpkin, Kolodner and Anderson reported.
At the University of Maryland, the gap between Black students graduating in the state and the number of Black students enrolled at the university was 24 percentage points — the sixth-worst in the country and a record that many educators have called dismal. The Post also reported on other leading offenders, including flagship schools from Michigan, South Carolina and Mississippi.
“In 2019, federal data shows the Black share of public high school graduates was 17% in Michigan, 37% in South Carolina and 49% in Mississippi. But the Black share of freshmen enrollment that fall was 4% at the University of Michigan, 6% at the University of South Carolina and 10% at the University of Mississippi,” Lumpkin, Kolodner and Anderson said. “The 39-point gap in Mississippi was the largest in the country on this measure of flagship demographics.”
In a statement acknowledging the problem and the progress they need to make, University of Mississippi spokesman Rod Guajardo said the school is intensifying efforts to recruit and retain Black students from within the state with new financial aid initiatives and a program that invites rising high school seniors to visit the school’s campus.
At the University of Maryland, similar efforts are underway. A 2018 drop in Black enrollment helped fuel a “major push for improvement” when the school’s then-president, Wallace D. Loh, created a task force to increase student outreach and set a $100 million fundraising target for an endowment designed to provide scholarships for in-need students from within the state.
“That was the year that it got our attention and made us think, ‘OK, we need to do something to change this. This can’t be the start of a trend,’” said Shannon Gundy, University of Maryland’s executive director of undergraduate admissions.
But many critics wonder whether these efforts will be enough to help override a larger and ultimately more pressing goal for many schools — the need to make a profit.
“Flagship universities are among the most prestigious public universities in the country, financed in part by tax dollars, and their missions [should] include providing affordable and high-quality education to residents of their states,” Lumpkin, Kolodner and Anderson said.
However, the drive at many flagships — despite claims saying otherwise — remains recruitment of out-of-state students because they pay higher tuition and help the school more financially. Additionally, they tend to come from white, affluent families, further throwing off the school’s diversity and enrollment numbers.
“Skeptics question whether the flagships [also] focus too much on a narrow band of students who they know will graduate with minimal support,” The Post reported.
Tomás Monarrez, a research associate at the Urban Institute who has analyzed racial representation in higher education, told the Post that “many of the flagships and highly selective public colleges are behaving basically like an Ivy League institution when it comes to admissions. The issue is not that there aren’t enough qualified Black and Latino students. It’s about who they’re choosing to accept.”
As the need to maintain the business of academics clashes against the “desire” for diversity that many schools continue to express, skeptics of these schools and their ability to enact any lasting change say it’s a problem that isn’t likely going anywhere anytime soon.
“Flagship universities are not accepting a lot of students — including Black and Latino students — who probably could succeed if they went there,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “They’re exacerbating racial inequities instead of combating them.”