Opinion | Why Is Black Enrollment Falling at an Elite Southern University?

In a dark room in eastern Alabama, I stood in a line of 17- and 18-year-olds, dozens of fraternity brothers staring at us. I was 10 days into my freshman year at Auburn University. The “pledge trainer,” a junior who reeked of whiskey, yelled out the rules. The final, most important one? No Black people at the frat house. He did not use the words “Black people.”

I wish I had had the courage to drop out of pledging on the spot. I did so 48 hours later, but didn’t report the incident.

This is not some memory excavated from a distant past — the year was 2013. Fast forward to last summer when, amid a supposed national reckoning on race, the Black at Auburn Instagram page was flooded with reports of disturbing incidents, including ones in which a student was called a racial slur and another was asked, “What sport do you play that got you into Auburn?”

The story at Auburn is troubling on the institutional level, too. Black enrollment at the university, never large, peaked 14 years ago at 8.7 percent of the student body. The share of Black students in last fall’s freshman class was only 3.2 percent. (This fall’s numbers have not yet been made public.) That’s compared to a statewide under-30 population that’s around 30 percent Black.

For a public university with a responsibility to educate residents of the state, failing such a large segment of the population is a dereliction of duty.

The decline in the percentage of Auburn students who are Black is representative of a broader trend among the 14 schools of the Southeastern Conference, nine of which had shrinking proportions of Black students from 2010 to 2018.

Nationally, the picture was not much better: Black enrollment went down at 20 of the top 50 public universities over the same period, and it fell at almost 60 percent of the 101 most selective public colleges and universities from 2000 to 2017. A Washington Post and Hechinger Report analysis published this year found that 15 state flagship universities 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.”

These numbers demonstrate a missed opportunity to use one of America’s strongest engines of economic and social mobility — public higher education — to reduce racial inequities. Black and Hispanic people are less likely than white and Asian people to have college degrees, and that presents a major impediment to advancement. In Alabama, 28 percent of the Black population lives in poverty, compared to 12 percent of white people.

An Auburn degree can be a game-changer for many families. The median midcareer salary of an Auburn graduate stands at $111,000, according to PayScale, a salary data company — more than double Alabama’s median household income of $50,536.

We know how to bring about greater student body diversity, because some public universities have done it. When the University of Texas, Austin, started admitting the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in the state in the late 1990s, it created pathways for schools in more historically disadvantaged communities to send students to that flagship university.

Over the next decade, the number of high schools in Texas whose graduates went there rose from 674 to 900. Once on campus, those students graduated at similar levels as all other students. This program increased earnings for these students with no significant harm to those who were “pushed out,” in terms of graduation rates and earnings, according to a 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

I know first hand as a white man that diversity improves the education of every student. I grew up in Houston, graduating from one of the most diverse high schools in America. With no single racial group exceeding 36 percent of the population, students tended to develop a sense of cultural humility, an understanding that their view of the world was but one perspective of many. It is difficult to learn this lesson at some of our elite public universities when the Black population is vanishingly small.

One possible explanation for the sinking numbers of Black students at these institutions is that tuition shot up significantly at many colleges during and after the 2008 financial crisis to compensate for substantial declines in state funding per student. (The pandemic’s toll on state tax revenues poses a new risk to funding for public universities.)

There are ways around this problem. Louisiana State University, which faced deep cuts after the recession, was still able to increase its Black student population. One effective strategy was to recruit students in every parish in Louisiana.

Research has shown that one of the strongest levers for colleges seeking more diversity is offering more need-based financial aid. To that end, the University of Kentucky in 2016 announced a major shift in how it distributed financial aid, pledging to ensure that the majority of the funds would go to need-based aid. This fall, Auburn, which ranks last among the top 50 public universities in terms of meeting its undergraduates’ financial needs, increased its own need-based aid to freshmen by $2.4 million to a total of $3.5 million, along with expanding scholarship opportunities.

The increase in need-based aid was one of the recommendations of a school task force created last year to address racial disparities. Auburn says it has also started using the Common Application in order to reach a wider demographic and has piloted a program that de-emphasizes test scores in admissions. There is some evidence that moving away from standardized test scores may expand racial and economic diversity.

The initiatives are an encouraging start, but our public institutions must do better, and we must expect more. They are too important for anything less.

Drake Pooley was the student body chairman of diversity as an undergraduate at Auburn and is now at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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