Invisible on campus: Boosting black representation through undergraduate admissions

| Senior Editor

Invisible on Campus is an investigative series that takes a multifaceted look at the past, present and future of black oppression on campus. In its first two installments, we looked at the current climate of diversity and inclusion on campus and the history of black student activism at Washington University, which included past attempts to increase the school’s percentage of black undergraduates. Today, we examine the University’s current and future efforts to further this goal.

Kielah Harbert has always been self-disciplined. Growing up in North St. Louis, she needed to be, she said, to keep on-schedule with her work and various responsibilities. The black Washington University sophomore attended Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, a public high school about a 10-minute walk north of Saint Louis University, but growing up, she never looked across the city to Wash. U. as a potential destination.

She had a high GPA and ACT scores, but “I didn’t think I could get in,” Harbert remembers now. “Wash. U. was never at our school; we only saw community colleges come in, and for-profit schools and ROTC programs.”

Harbert managed to find her way to the Danforth Campus thanks to a pair of college readiness programs—Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and College Bound—to which she attributed her confidence that an institution as prestigious as Wash. U. could be a place for her. Now, Harbert spends her free time visiting high schools around the city to try and prove to students two and three years her junior that they, too, can follow Harbert’s path. She said she’s even in the process of publishing a book to help guide such students through the admissions process.

“I’m not the exception, if you look at all the other students,” Harbert explained. “They’re just as smart, and they’re just as creative, and they’re just as hungry.”

Since Harbert’s matriculation to Wash. U., the University has opened up a conversation with Harbert’s alma mater, sending a counselor to the Career Academy and hosting students on campus for tours. It’s the kind of “small step” the University needs to take to widen its recruiting base and attract more black students, Harbert said.

And it’s the kind of step that administrators more broadly hail as necessary to recruit more black students. For the last two decades, while the country’s top schools have slowly gained more black undergraduates, Wash. U. has failed to make inroads in this area. The overall percentage of black undergraduates on the Danforth Campus is lower than it was in 1976—40 years and several generations of student activists ago.

The University’s history of stagnation in admissions might be turning around, as the number of black students in this year’s freshman class is nearly double that of last year’s. But, although this number and related programs aimed at diversity inspire some optimism for coming years, they don’t mask black students’ dissatisfaction with the administration’s approach to racial issues and their concern that one year of positive results will not reverse a decades-long trend.

* * *

Ask administrators about Wash. U.’ history of recruiting black students, and they’ll say that attempts to diversify the undergraduate population aren’t new.

“We’ve been focused on it for a really long time,” Julie Shimabukuro, the Japanese-American director of admissions, said. “Wash. U.’s my alma mater, so this is a really important thing to me personally and to our office.”

But the numbers don’t bear out tangible results from that focus. Since the early 1990s, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) has been tracking the annual black enrollment figures at the 30 highest-ranking research institutions in the country. Using these numbers for comparison, until this fall, Wash. U. hadn’t enrolled an above-average percentage of black freshmen in any year during Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s 21-year tenure at the University.

This data comes from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s annual report on black freshman representation at the nation’s top 30 research universities. The JBHE counts among its numbers both students identifying as black and those identifying as mixed-race, including black. The above numbers have been calculated as a four-year rolling average of the percentage of black freshmen attending both Wash. U. and the median school in JBHE’s rankings, with a four-year average used to better account for year-to-year fluctuations and thereby provide a superior snapshot of the campus’ demographics in a given year.

This data comes from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s annual report on black freshman representation at the nation’s top 30 research universities. The JBHE counts among its numbers both students identifying as black and those identifying as mixed-race, including black. The above numbers have been calculated as a four-year rolling average of the percentage of black freshmen attending both Wash. U. and the median school in JBHE’s rankings, with a four-year average used to better account for year-to-year fluctuations and thereby provide a superior snapshot of the campus’ demographics in a given year.

Counting 9.2 percent of its students as black, this year’s freshman class is the first in at least two decades—and likely the first in Wash. U.’s history—with a number north of 7 percent. (In its numbers, the JBHE also includes students who identify as mixed, with both black and another race.) And even with Wash. U. picking up the biggest year-over-year increase in the percentage of enrolled black freshmen among the schools in the JBHE’s annual report, the Danforth Campus still ranks at around the median of those top 30 research schools for 2015-16 freshmen.

For their part, some administrators say the University’s history in this regard is embarrassing and that this year’s increase is long overdue. Elsewhere, though, the school’s messages on diversity belie its legacy of being an “outlier” below the “bottom of the pack,” as Jen Smith, the white undergraduate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, termed Wash. U.’s situation.

In the chancellor’s statement on the diversity page of the University’s website, for example, Wrighton writes, “The university’s undergraduate population is regarded by many as a model for undergraduate student diversity.” In an interview for this story, the chancellor, who is white, avoided questions of who considers Wash. U. a model and for what specific areas of diversity.

That kind of public rhetoric speaks to what many black students perceive as an attitude of complacency from school officials with regard to diversity in admissions. Students interviewed for this story suggested that the University has a vested interest in maintaining a positive public image and that negative external attention—not a true desire for change—was the chief motivator behind the recent uptick in visible diversity efforts. If administrators have cared for years about this issue, students asked, why haven’t the numbers budged until now?

“Now it looks bad for the University to not have black students,” 2015 alumnus and black activist Reuben Riggs said, “and that threatens the ability of the University to do the business they want to do.”

When asked about this concern from students, Shimabukuro responded, “It’s 2015, but you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to start now…It’s been on our minds, but this year was a great year for us, and so, for us, that’s a good foundation, and we have to keep building from there.”

* * *

These contrasting viewpoints reveal a rift in how different groups view the role of admissions in increasing the black undergraduate population. This ideological clash is symptomatic of larger communication problems between the University’s leaders and its students, as well as between its black members and those of other races, which this series will address in greater detail in later entries. It touches on questions of competing responsibilities and the administration’s role in shaping conversations around race.

In the admissions office, Shimabukuro views the process as a partnership between administrators and students, the latter of whom must take responsibility for helping to recruit high-school students who look like them.

When asked further about what this responsibility could look like, Shimabukuro said her office reaches out to diverse student groups—such as Ervin and Rodriguez Scholars, which are comprised mostly of black and Hispanic students, respectively, as well as the associations for black and Latin American students—to become tour guides, campus interviewers and ambassadors to their high schools. But responses to those requests aren’t as enthusiastic as she would like, the admissions director said, and she criticized current students for a perceived lack of involvement in helping the University meet its diversity goals.

Instead, Shimabukuro sees students demanding change from the University, without expecting to participate in bringing about that change.

“You can’t sit back and say, hey, Wash. U. should be like this,” she said. “This is our community; this is our home. So if you want something fixed, you have to help.”

Other University leaders hedged more in their discussion, framing the relationship as a prospective partnership rather than a mandate. “Ultimately, it’s the administration’s job and our responsibility in the end to try to achieve our objectives and explain what they are,” Provost Holden Thorp, who is white, said, “but if the students want to participate, we really like that.”

Students, however, had a different view of the dynamic and bristled at the notion that it is their job to help the admissions office. They suggested that the admissions question was emblematic of broader ways in which University leaders handle issues of race—by leaving it up to black students to dictate discussions rather than taking the initiative themselves.

“It shouldn’t be on the activists, it shouldn’t be on the students and it definitely shouldn’t be on the students of color,” Harbert said.

Senior Jon Williford can speak about the conflict from both sides. On the one hand, Williford is the president of the Association of Black Students; on the other, he worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions for three years conducting tours, presentations and interviews, interned with the office one summer and serves as an official University admissions ambassador on trips home. He agreed with Shimabukuro that Wash. U. needs more admissions workers of color but stressed that the responsibility doesn’t fall on the students.

“It leans more toward the administration because it’s their job to get students here in the first place, so that’s part of literally their mission and job description, whereas students, our first initiative is to learn and be studious,” Williford said.

Williford objected to what he sees an overreliance on students of color to serve as ambassadors to communities not well-serviced by Wash. U. Instead, he suggested, the admissions office should send its own staff to untapped communities such as the south side of Chicago, which Williford calls home.

And from his own experience with admissions work, Williford noted that black students who want to help spark change can find themselves quickly alienated from the process.

“If you go into a stagnant system with all the gusto that you have and people really just don’t want to listen, which can be the case…it’s going to be kind of hard to change stuff,” he said.

Critics of the University’s conversations around the recruitment of black students pointed to additional examples of feeling demeaned by school officials’ public pronouncements.

Throughout this school year, administrators have suggested that the increase in black freshmen is due in part to a gain in funds for lower-income students, via the University’s push to increase the proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants to 13 percent—approximately double the previous total—by 2020. School deans have volunteered more money from their budgets—around an additional $5 million a year, they said—toward increased financial aid for students.

Race and economic status don’t completely overlap, Thorp, the architect of the Pell plan, said, but increasing financial aid naturally brings in a more diverse student body.

There is a “momentum that comes from working all of these at the same time,” Thorp said. “The low-income, Pell-eligible work has certainly enhanced our efforts to recruit a more racially diverse class.”

Other campus figures, however, cautioned that conflating race and economic status can pose problems for admissions—and has done so in the past. Several community members suggested that in working to boost racial diversity through outreach to low-income students, Wash. U. is, in effect, ignoring the class diversity within America’s black population.

“There’s an assumption that all black students are poor,” Lori White, vice chancellor for students, summarized. White, who is black, added that this line of thinking both impairs recruitment and perpetuates harmful stereotypes that black students face when they arrive on campus.

In a similar vein, several students explained, when unveiling the statistics for this year’s freshman class, administrators hailed the new students for exhibiting no drop-off in test scores despite the added diversity. “What we found is that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off,” Thorp told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June.

But the students who mentioned this anecdote saw that perception as disrespectful, saying they felt insulted that administrators seemed surprised to learn what they’ve known all along: that black students are just as qualified for a Wash. U. education.

* * *

Beyond the more cerebral debate over responsibilities and rhetoric, administrators and students alike acknowledge that there is more work to be done in recruiting black students to campus.

In his interview for this story, Wrighton reiterated his commitment to recruiting a student body whose composition reflects that of America’s population as a whole—a metric that would place the proportion of black students on campus at around 12 or 13 percent. That goal generally coheres with student desire—last year’s STL Students in Solidarity demands pushed for an immediate increase to 10 percent, and students interviewed for this story mostly said that they hope for the University to meet the national average.

This year’s freshman class gets the University halfway there from its historically underwhelming plateau, and a host of community members applauded this year’s numbers.

“It’s changed how campus feels,” Andie Berry, a black junior who has co-written the Black Anthology drama production the past two years, said. “There are people on campus who are black that I don’t know, which is just really refreshing.”

Besides increased financial aid for low-income black students, school officials were unable to pinpoint specific factors behind this year’s increased diversity. They are confident, however, that a melange of programs and practices aimed at bridging the gap between reality and the chancellor’s stated ideal will turn this freshman class’ composition into the start of a trend rather than a mere blip amid a pattern of lower numbers.

The school’s most-touted initiative, the College Prep Program, launched in summer 2014 as a flagship effort to boost outreach to the St. Louis region and provide just the kind of hands-on investment that Harbert didn’t receive as a high school student. The program brings local students from underserved backgrounds to campus for a college readiness course; students take classes and live on the South 40 over the summer and return throughout the school year for various enrichment activities.

After opening with 26 students in its first year, the program, which spans the three summers from the end of ninth grade to the start of 12th, will have around 50 participants for each future cohort, program director Leah Merrifield said.

Merrifield, who is black, added that while not all of the participating students can expect to attend Wash. U., she hopes they both pursue ambitious opportunities for higher education and consider the Danforth Campus while doing so.

Other summer programs have a broader reach, and to great effect, school officials said. While Carmon Colangelo, the white dean of the Sam Fox School, admitted he hasn’t reached his goal in recruiting a more diverse group for summer sessions in the art and architecture schools. He said that they are gaining black students each year, and “we’re seeing more of them come to undergraduate school here, for sure.”

In her day-to-day recruitment efforts, Shimabukuro said she focuses on more intangible matters, such as boosting Wash. U.’s name recognition among populations that might be unfamiliar with the Midwestern campus. To this end, Shimabukuro highlighted partnerships her office has curated with community organizations across the country, and she emphasized the importance of bringing high schoolers to campus.

For some students accepted to the University, the admissions office offers travel grants so students can visit free of charge—and visiting the campus is the most effective way to attract students to enroll once accepted, Shimabukuro said. That’s a route toward addressing an under-discussed element of the admissions process that affects black students in particular: every year since 2011, accepted black students have enrolled at Wash. U. at lower rates than accepted students of other races.

Anecdotal evidence from black students, though, intimates that bringing students to campus might not be the convincing tool that Shimabukuro believes it to be. (The admissions director said she didn’t have any data on post-visit enrollment that either supported or refuted this notion.) In part one of this series, we quoted Kielah Harbert’s hesitance in wanting her younger siblings to attend Wash. U.: “Do I want them to have to experience what I experience—to feel isolated, to feel not wanted, to feel like you have to constantly think about your identity every single day?”

Fellow sophomore Kiara Sample offered a similar perspective. “It’s so sad to have black students come on campus and tell me that they don’t want to come to Wash. U. because they look around and don’t see anyone like them and they’re afraid that they wouldn’t have friends on campus and they wouldn’t fit in anywhere,” she said.

Some school officials believe that momentum in diverse admissions—the idea that the presence of more black students on campus will yield more black students, and then more black students, creating a consistent upward trend—will help address this very problem. Further discussion of momentum and its role in shaping the campus climate around inclusion will come in part five of this series. Before that discussion, though, part four will examine many of the same issues addressed here about admissions, this time applied to the recruitment and retention of black faculty.

Additional reporting by Noah Jodice.

Read the rest of the “Invisible on Campus” series here.

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