Black first-year enrollment passes 10 percent

University tops latest rankings from Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, admissions ‘excited’ but ‘not done’

| Senior Editor

Only two years ago, the percentage of black students in Washington University’s freshman class was 4.8 percent, with just 84 total black enrollees.

Now, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 12.4 percent of this year’s freshman class, the class of 2020, is black. That number ties the University for first place—with Columbia University—among top-ranked research universities.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) has been collecting data on black undergraduate enrollment rates for the past 24 years. This is the first time in the journal’s history, and likely in the University’s history, that Washington University has posted a number north of 10 percent. For the class of 2019, black enrollment was at 9.2 percent, which was the previous record for black enrollment at the University since JBHE started collecting data.

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Although the ranking presents evidence of a quick turnaround for the University’s admissions team, Vice Provost for Admissions Ronne Turner is already looking toward the future.

“We are excited by that number, and we are excited about being tied for number one, but we are not done,” Turner said.

She emphasized the admissions team’s intersectional approach to recruiting underrepresented students, which focuses on race, class, socioeconomic status and other factors.

In an interview conducted in the fall 2016, Director of Admissions Julie Shimabukuro noted that much of the success of this year’s recruitment of black and other underrepresented students came from working with community-based organizations, as well as school counselors and current undergraduates who served as student ambassadors.

Turner was not personally involved in the recruitment of the class of 2020—she arrived in July—but she will be helping to shape future classes.

“We’re going to expand the strategies that have already begun,” Turner said. “I am in a fortunate situation that I’m coming to an institution that is deeply committed and already has enjoyed some success, so it’s my job to try to expand on that success.”

Some new strategies include partnerships with other universities where admissions officers travel together and target certain regions of the country that might not otherwise have been accessible to Washington University. The admissions office hopes those interinstitutional partnerships will help increase enrollment of not only black students, but of other underrepresented groups as well.

More nuanced communications between the University and prospective students are also a focus. Turner said that, though it is a long-term plan, the team wants to develop more personalized forms of communication—whether that be mailers, emails, phone conversations or new media—in order to speak to individual students’ interests and backgrounds.

Still, one of the most effective ways the admissions team has been able to attract underrepresented students is simply getting them see the University up close.

“The data out there still suggests that when students come to campus and actually have the opportunity to experience what it’s like at the institution and interact with the current students at the institution and faculty and staff, that that has an impact,” Turner said.

Events like the Discovery Weekend, run through the John B. Ervin Scholars Program in the fall for prospective students, as well as Multicultural Celebration Weekend in the spring for accepted students, are key parts of that strategy.

It begs the question, however, that if black or other minority students do come to campus and feel out of place or “othered,” will they want to apply or come back? In the past, students of color have expressed concerns about the University’s treatment of minorities—including an over-reliance on the work of students to drive change—and the overall culture of acceptance on campus.

Turner said she’s ready to tackle that issue head on.

“I think that that’s something that we all need to do together,” Turner said. “From my role working to get a group of people to think about this, and then there are other folks here on campus who are working really hard on diversity and inclusion, equity and student life.”

Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement and Director of the College Prep Program Leah Merrifield agreed, saying that increased communication and collaboration between the different parts of campus are essential, from the front desk to Dining Services and the Office of Residential Life.

“Most of us are people of good faith and good intent, [but] we all have our bias,” Merrifield said. “Some of us have a lot of unconscious bias around socioeconomic status, or race or gender.”

Changing the culture, she said, is an ongoing process.

“It’s not a one and done,” Merrifield added. “So for the people that think, ‘Oh, we’ll have one little training, and everybody will be on board with that, and it’s going to be great’…it’s always a process.”

Merrifield’s own work in the College Prep Program is evidence of that process. The program focuses on helping under-resourced and first-generation prospective students from the St. Louis region prepare for and be accepted into college.

However, she doesn’t see College Prep as hugely influential in changing the enrollment data.

“I think, incrementally, we will continue to help push that number,” Merrifield said. “What we really try to focus on, and have positioned the college prep program as, is a resource in the region to help talented students who are probably thinking about college anyway be better prepared to perform at the most competitive school they could get into.”

While that may not always be Washington University, the program still creates increases the presence of the University in places that might not have considered it before.

“We see that already as a way to increase brand awareness in schools where before people thought, ‘Washington University is not thinking about us; they’re not open to students who look like us, and if they are it’s not going to be a good experience,’” Merrifield said.

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