Credit: The Hechinger Report

Many of the nation’s best public universities are enrolling disproportionately few African-American and Latino students.

Flagship universities are the jewels in the crown of public higher education systems — they have sought-after faculty, preeminent research facilities, the most resources and often the highest graduation rates, for all races. They also stand as beacons of affordable excellence for the students of their states.

But when it comes to equitably serving the state’s residents, whose taxes fund these top-flight universities, many fall far short of their stated missions. Often there are big differences — defined by race — between who’s graduating from a state’s public high schools and who’s getting into its flagship universities.

More than a third of U.S. states had at least a 10-point gap (including eight with a 20-point gap) between the percentage of their public high school graduates who are African-American and the percentage of their flagships’ freshman class who are African-American (in 2015, the most recent data available).

For Latinos, 10 states had at least a 10-point gap. New York and Illinois were the only states that had double-digit gaps for both groups.

View an interactive graphic ranking all states here.

“It matters who’s enrolled at flagships, because they tend to go on to be leaders in their states, particularly in politics and in business,” said Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on college access. “It’s important for everyone going to these universities that they are diverse.”

It’s also important for students financially. Most flagships have larger endowments, allowing them to offer more generous scholarships and provide more robust academic and social support to students. And later on, in many states, the average earnings for graduates from flagships outpace those of graduates from most of the state’s regional public universities and colleges.

Five of the six states with the largest gaps for African-Americans are in the South (the sixth is Delaware). Mississippi leads the way, with a 40-point gap between the African-American percentage of its public high school graduates in 2015 and the African-American percentage of students enrolled at the University of Mississippi that fall. African-Americans comprised 10 percent of freshmen at Ole Miss in 2015, an 8-percentage-point drop since 2010.

African-American students say their shrinking numbers at Ole Miss, on a campus that famously resisted integration, contribute to a more difficult learning environment.

Orion Taylor visited Ole Miss when he was a senior in high school and fell in love with the campus. He enrolled in the fall of 2013, but soon after he arrived, he began to have concerns. Groups of residents were permitted to march through campus, waving giant Confederate flags and, he said, shouting the “N” word at him and his friends. Later that year, some white students marched up and down his dorm hallway belting out the song “The South Will Rise Again.”

Other problems were subtler. He said that he felt that faculty members were more attentive to white students, and he didn’t get any of the leadership positions for which he applied. He eventually transferred to a historically black university.

“I tell myself every year, I wish I would have chosen Jackson State in the beginning,” said Taylor, 23.

Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ole Miss, said the university is working to increase diversity and to retain admitted students. In the fall of 2015, African-American student retention was 87.2 percent, the highest in Mississippi, he wrote in an email, attributing this to “programs that are geared toward student success, including academic support programs and scholarship opportunities.”

Although it’s easy to see Mississippi as an outlier, many other state institutions are also struggling for equity.

The University of South Carolina enrolled the lowest percentage of African-Americans in its 2015 freshman class among the 34 colleges and universities in the state system.

The University of Georgia and Louisiana State University both have enrollment gaps equal to South Carolina’s (31 points), but LSU, unlike the others, has increased African-American enrollment since 2010.

Among states where at least 10 percent of the graduating high school class was African-American in 2015, the University of Kentucky had the smallest African-American flagship freshmen-high school graduates gap, of 3 percent.

President Eli Capilouto, who arrived six years ago, was explicit about wanting the student body to be representative of the state, said UK’s vice president for institutional diversity, Sonja Feist-Price. She sees greater diversity as creating educational advantages for white as well as black students.

“We have students here who have not encountered many, or any, students who are different from them,” said Feist-Price, a UK faculty member since 1992. “We’re all far better off when we understand the ways we are alike and different.”

The largest gaps in enrollment for Latino students are, for the most part, at different institutions than those that have large gaps for African-Americans, and are concentrated in the western part of the country.

The University of California, Berkeley, has the largest gap for Latino students — only 13 percent of its 2015 freshman class was Latino, compared to 51 percent of the state’s public high school graduates.

“We definitely see it; it bothers me every day,” said Amy Jarich, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment. “Our goal is to serve the state, and to have conversations in our classrooms that reflect the diversity of the state.”

One issue is that elite institutions like UC Berkeley try to compete nationally — and internationally — for top students. Starting in 2009, as state budget cuts squeezed resources, out-of-state and international students who could pay full freight became attractive as a source of revenue. Now 24 percent of Berkeley’s students are from outside California.

An exception to the western trend is the University of New Mexico. The Latino flagship freshmen-high school graduates gap in 2015 at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, was more than four times the size of the gap at UNM. And the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Nevada-Reno have gaps three times larger.

UNM administrators say that its success in graduating Latino students is one of the university’s biggest selling points.

“Students and families see that there is a culture of support and success at UNM,” the university’s vice provost of enrollment and analytics, Terry Babbitt, wrote in an email. “Mentoring, cultural celebration, places to find support and comfort, and committed faculty and staff, many who come from similar backgrounds, make a difference.”

Babbitt also said that to reduce inequity, there must be an “institutional commitment” to serving the population in question.

“Everyone has to be on board,” said Babbitt. “An ethnic center, minority recruitment office or other siloed group won’t get the job done alone.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.


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19 replies on “Mississippi’s flagship university leaves black students behind”

    1. Absolutely – simply to get clear of the dressed up but still white trash at the Ole’ Missus Plantation.

        1. Hardly, Ole’ Reb! Just looking to once and for all level the playing field with what was once federally mandated and full integration…..but Oxford and the leadership of Mississippi is about as white shoe as you can find, which is how you apparently like it.

          1. Do you have any statistics or facts to back up those claims. You don’t think calling a group of people “white trash” not racist.

          2. Um, this article has a lot of statistics GLARING in straight in the eye. Did you read them? AND the statistical FACT that Mississippi is at the bottom of every performance indicator in the nation reflects very poorly on the “flagship” Ole’ Missus’ which either is inept in it’s leadership, or actually wants those very poor numbers. All the while Oxford’s “numbers” improve. All statistically and factually verifiable. Shamefully obvious.

          3. I agree with you, the leadership at Ole piss is deplorable but that has nothing to do with our minorities wanting to self segregate. So my question stands.

          4. Ok then. The reason they wish to self-segregate is because of the piss-poor leadership that is not welcoming or respectful of racial and cultural differences. In other words, as Diana (below) said it so eloquently, do you blame them? The Oxford Plantation is what drives their desire for separation.

          5. The administration got rid of the CBF, did away with Dixie, put up contextualization plaques all over campus, changed the names of streets, set up committees to address minorities concerns and you are still not satisfied? Don’t look now but I think your racism is showing.

          6. When your law school and campus heritage hero is a guy named Lamar who filed the articles for secession for Mississippi, was a confederate colonel and vehemently looked down on African-Americans throughout his leadership tenure, you have a problem. You can’t “contextualize” things away.

          7. That can be said for 99% of white Americans in the 1800’s, so do you want to change every name in the country because someone doesn’t live up to todays standard? How do you feel about the man on the five dollar bill? Will you hold Dr. King to the same standard, after all he was homophobic and an adulterer .It’s called learning about history you may want to try it sometimes.

          8. NOW you’re making some sense! YES, let’s talk about their faults and shortcomings, and decide if they should be so prominent in the public eye. History is to be studied about in classrooms, not reminded of everywhere you walk on a campus where racists are prominently revered and whose moniker is the “Rebels”….which basically says, “To this day, we’ve never given in, and never will. Wink Wink”.

          9. Yes, lets do and while we are at it lets talk about the shortcomings of the minorities and they’re continuing to want to be seen as victims. You have no desire for compromise all you want… in the old slave mentality “the bottom rail is on the top”. And you did not answer my question about Lincoln and King. Are you afraid of the truth?

          10. Truth is always best. Yes, King and Lincoln were imperfect, and should be openly discussed in HISTORY classes. No one is promoting victimhood, but rather a reasonable degree of consideration and respect for not having to be reminded of how millions of individuals were subjected to “lesser than” status…..which is pretty much all the Ole’ Missus’ does STILL to this day!

    2. “Mississippi leads the way, with a 40-point gap between the African-American percentage of high school graduates and freshmen”. Hmmm. I’d wanna segregate myself from that Klan too.

        1. Proof? LOL Jees, why do you think they desperately hold on to the monikers of “Ole’ Miss” and “Rebels”? So they don’t have to wear the sheets anymore!

          1. The administration at Ole Miss was made many, many concession to the minorities but of course it is never enough that is why we still have majority black universities in Mississippi because you just can’t let go of your racism.

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