University reports record number of low-income, minority students in freshman class
The class of 2020 will rank near the top in terms of both racial and socioeconomic diversity—numbers unparalleled in Washington University’s history. The University reported that 12 percent of the freshman class is African-American and nine percent is Latino or Latina. Additionally, 13 percent of freshmen are eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal grant for students with low-income backgrounds.
In the past, African-Americans and Latinos/Latinas have been among the least represented groups in the school’s population. This will be the first time in at least the past 21 years, and likely in the school’s history, that a freshman class is more than 10 percent African-American. In the past two years alone, however, the University has more than doubled the percentage of African-Americans in the freshman classes—up from 5 percent in 2014—and raised the percentage of Latino/Latina students by three percent.
These increases come on the heels of criticism, from students and media alike, of the University’s lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education listed Washington University as the least socioeconomically diverse school in the country, with only six percent of students eligible for Pell Grants. Since then, the University has made a commitment to reaching an undergraduate population with 13 percent Pell Grant-eligible students by the year 2020.
In order to reach that goal, Washington University would have to admit three more consecutive classes at 13 percent or higher. That percentage, however, only puts the University in the middle of the pack.
When asked whether there was a plan for reaching higher percentages if the initial goal is met, Provost Holden Thorp said there wasn’t, since the University’s primary focus is on the current challenge.
The key to the improved recruitment numbers, according to Director of Admissions Julie Shimabukuro, is an increased focus on connecting the University with low-income and minority communities.
“This year, specifically, with the admissions officers, too, we’ve been trying to focus more on reaching out to community based organizations in various cities,” Shimabukuro said. “In high schools, [we are] targeting counselors and inviting them to campus; also, inviting community based organizations, advisors to campus as well.”
That connectivity also comes in the form of student ambassadors, who visit high schools to help provide resources and encourage potential students to apply.
Shimabukuro said there has been a particular focus on recruiting African-American and Latino/Latina students through the ambassadors and counselors, as well as an overall increase in the number of recruitment events.
Experience on the ground
Kielah Harbert, a junior, is one of those student ambassadors. Since her freshman year, she has sat on committees with University administrators to discuss increasing economic and racial diversity through improved recruitment strategies.
Though she said she is proud of her work, Harbert said the weight of responsibility from the administration has also worn on her.
“I’m a student at the same time and I am helping you all better your policies and you’re leaning on me to do this, so can we help each other out a little bit more,” Harbert said.
Harbert, along with her friend and Princeton University junior Wilglory Tanjong, wrote the book “#Admitted” to guide potential first-generation college students through the college admissions process. She said one tangible way the University could provide support would be to utilize resources such as their book, potentially by donating copies to high schools.
A native of St. Louis and a first-generation college student, Harbert has helped strengthen ties between the University and her own high school, Clyde C. Miller Career Academy. Washington University now has a counselor working with the school to help establish a pipeline to college for students.
After Harbert met with Director of Student Financial Services Michael Runiewicz, Runiewicz visited her school to talk about financial aid opportunities.
“After that the College Prep program partnered to have one of their counselors there to talk about college…because the other counselors [at the high school] have a lot on their plate,” Harbert said.
In Harbert’s experience, high school counselors often have to prioritize other issues students might be dealing with—which doesn’t leave much time or resources to discuss college.
But just getting a more diverse group of students to campus isn’t enough. Once they’re here, there are a myriad of social and economic hurdles they may have to overcome.
Funding for programs to support minority and low-income students can be the determining factor in a student’s experience. Shimabukuro said increased funding is another key to their recruiting success.
“One of the biggest differences is just the commitment of the University, specifically, to make sure that funding is available, so that as we admit students, the funding that is needed to support all the Pell-eligible students, first-gen students and everyone [that is here],” Shimabukuro said.
But Harbert said that while there are good programs in place, and often hardworking administrators behind them, there isn’t necessarily enough support for the increased number of lower-income or minority students.
Harbert is a member of TRiO, a program that supports first-generation, low-income or physically disabled students achieve success in college. Harbert said that the program has been supportive of her during her time at Washington University. In years past, TRiO had helped her purchase books. But just a few days ago, she received an email saying they wouldn’t be able to help this year.
“I held off on buying a lot of books for my classes because I didn’t know whether or not I’d be getting support, and it’s stressful as hell,” Harbert said.
Those kind of difficulties may not be as obvious from the outside, but they can weigh heavily on a student’s social and academic experience.
One new program started to help ease the burden on lower-income students is Deneb STARS, headed by Assistant Provost for Student Success Anthony Tillman. Though not a financial assistance group, the program provides mentorship to Pell Grant-eligible students during their time at the school.
“I’m really excited to see what Tony Tillman does, because he’s amazing, and he has some great ideas,” Harbert said.
Thorp agreed, saying that key administrators such as Tillman, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White, Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dedric Carter and recently hired Vice Provost of Admissions and Financial Aid Ronne Turner will help the University better recruit and serve minority and low-income students once they are here.
“We have to make sure, as with any executives, that [these administrators] have the support they need to succeed and that they’re always growing and doing new things,” Thorp said.
While this year’s class is beginning their journey at the University, the admissions office has already started recruitment for next year’s freshman class. Thorp and Shimabukuro are hopeful that this year’s success can be replicated.
“We got three years of great execution that we’ve got to do, so we’re focused on that,” Thorp said.