As Minnesota’s Black population grew over the past two decades, Black student enrollment at the University of Minnesota stayed flat, according to a new report on representation at selective public colleges.
The U a got failing grade for enrolling disproportionately small numbers of Black and Latino students in 2017, along with most of the 100 other research universities included in the analysis by the nonprofit think tank The Education Trust.
A University of Minnesota administrator said they have work to do to recruit and retain more students of color, but added that the report doesn’t account for recent progress enrolling more Black and Latino students. In 2018, the population of Black undergrads topped 6% for the first time, following changes to recruitment and student support strategies.
Still, students of color say campus can be a lonely, frustrating place.
“The U is a university that prides itself on being diverse … but the statistics tell a different story,” said Gbemi Oyetunde, president of the university’s Black Student Union. “(Black) students are, most of the time, the only Black students in their classroom, they’re the only Black student their advisor has.”
Oyetunde said that has an impact on Black students: “It’s hard for someone who doesn’t look like you to understand what you’re going through, what you need.”
The failing grade for the U comes amid a national reckoning on racial injustice, especially in Minnesota, where the police killing of George Floyd set off a round of introspection about the North Star State’s racial disparities in education, income and health, which are some of the worst in the nation.
The Education Trust report analyzed Black and Latino undergraduate enrollment at public colleges in 2000 and 2017 to determine whether the schools’ student bodies reflect states’ changing demographics — and the results were concerning, said Wil Del Pilar, Ed Trust’s vice president of higher education policy.
Black student enrollment declined at 60% of schools between 2000 and 2017, the report found. Improvements were marginal at most of the others, increasing an average of 1.3 percentage points.
At the University of Minnesota, about 3.8% of students were Black in 2000, and 3.6% of Minnesota’s 18- to 24-year-olds were Black, according to the report. The state’s population of Black college-age residents doubled by 2017, to 7.2% — but the U’s enrollment barely changed. That year, 4.2% of undergrads were Black.
There was more improvement in Latino enrollment, the report found, but half of schools still enrolled disproportionately few Latino students in 2017. In 2000, 1.9% of University of Minnesota undergrads were Latino, and 3.5% of the state’s college-age residents were Latino. In 2017, 3.6% of students were Latino, compared to 6.4% of the state’s population.
“When you’re starting from so low, in terms of (Latino) student access in 2000, any increase is going to look positive,” Del Pilar said. “A lot of institutions have improved, but they’re still not doing good enough.”
Robert McMaster, dean of undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota, said the report doesn’t reflect the school’s progress since 2017.
“We slipped behind, certainly, where we should be,” McMaster said. “The good news is I think we’ve turned the corner.”
In fall 2019 — more recent than the data available for The Education Trust report — 6.3% of undergrads were Black, and 4.2% were Latino, according to university enrollment records. Fall 2020 enrollment data isn’t available yet.
McMaster attributed the change to recent shifts in the university’s recruiting strategies, including partnerships with Twin Cities high schools and scholarships that include funding and mentoring for low-income students and students of color.
Students of color, particularly low-income students, face a wide range of barriers to higher education that begin long before they even set foot on a college campus.
Students of color and low-income high school students are less likely to have access to college counselors and higher-level classes, making it harder to get into selective schools. Students who can’t afford to retake the ACT or SAT may be stuck with lower scores than their wealthier peers — and the rising cost of college means a four-year education is altogether out of reach for many students.
In Minnesota, Black and Latino students are less likely to enroll in college after graduating high school. About 60% of Black students from the class of 2014 and 51% of Hispanic students enrolled in college, compared to 69% of the state’s high school graduates overall.
But getting students to campus is just one piece of the puzzle. The U is also working to make sure they stay there until they graduate, McMaster said.
The U is funding programs that provide tutoring and support — like the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence — while also working to improve the overall campus climate, he said.
The university’s first-year student retention rate is nearly the same across racial groups, but disparities in graduation rates persist. About 72% of Black students and 75% of Hispanic students graduated within six years of starting their program, compared to 83% of all students, according to federal data.
Once they get to campus, low-income students and students of color may struggle to navigate the unfamiliar, complex higher ed systems and find support on campus, making it a challenge to stay in school, Del Pilar said.
Plus, attending an overwhelmingly white school is exhausting and isolating, Oyetunde said.
Oyetunde said the U doesn’t do enough to support Black students, so the Black Student Union tries to fill the gap by connecting students with resources and community on campus — but it’s a daunting task for a single student group at a school with more than 30,000 undergraduates. The university should hire more faculty, staff and administrators of color to help students feel welcome, she said.
“People get lost in the shuffle. We’re not able to reach as many students as we need to so they don’t feel alone in their four-year college journey,” Oyetunde said. “There’s only so much we can do as students because we have to juggle our education.”
The Education Trust report includes a number of suggestions for legislators and higher ed leaders to make campus more accessible for Black and Latino students, including increasing funding for high-quality high school counselors, making entrance exams optional for college applications and giving more aid to students who need it the most.
During the pandemic, experts fear that universities could lose what little progress they’ve made in student diversity. People of color have experienced the worst effects of the pandemic, and struggling with poor health, family stress or financial strain could make it difficult to enroll or stay in school. This summer, college enrollment among Black students dropped 8% nationwide, and the trend may continue into the fall, Del Pilar said.
After making little progress enrolling Black and Latino students over nearly two decades, “the University of Minnesota doesn’t have any room to take a step back,” Del Pilar said. “It’s critical that people start paying attention … so they don’t increase the inequities that already exist.”