Public Universities Struggle to Support Black Students, Report Finds

Thirty-five of the 506 public universities ranked in report about black student resources claim they're making improvements

As universities make last ditch efforts to woo new students ahead of the May 1 National College Decision Day — when students will make their final college decision — a handful of public universities ranked lowest in a report on resources for black students are still struggling to support some of their currently enrolled students.

When Kaidee Akullo moved nearly 400 miles from her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado in 2016, she felt lucky to have been assigned to one of the few black resident assistants on campus. Durango is nearly 300 miles from Colorado Springs, the nearest major city and has an estimated 18,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town had just more than 100 black or African American inhabitants in 2017. 

Her RA would later introduce her to Fort Lewis’ Black Student Union, which, at the time, was only in its second year on campus and had just three regularly attending members. 

Only 1% of the university’s 3,300 undergraduate students identified as black or African American in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fort Lewis currently employs only one black faculty member, according to school officials. 

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In this Friday, April 12, 2019, photo, Fort Lewis College student and Black Student Union member Kaidee Akullo poses on the college's campus in Durango, Colorado and wears a graduation stole that reads "Black Grads Matter."

Akullo, a graduating public health major, and three other students from the college described to NBC what they saw as lack of resources available to Fort Lewis’ black students compared to other racial and ethnic groups that comprise the student body. They detailed the absence of professional staff to mentor black students and the lack of support services specific to black students.

Fort Lewis College was one of 30 schools that ranked at the bottom of a University of Southern California report in September that assessed black college students’ success and resources at 506 public universities across the country. Shaun Harper, the founder and executive director of USC’s Race and Equity Center, and Isaiah Simmons, an associate researcher at the center, created the report.

“The overall idea was if [education] is something we’re all paying into [via taxes], everyone should feel like they’re getting something out of it or at least that it’s working in their favor in some sort of way,” Simmons said.

Schools were rated on how the percentage of black undergraduates reflected their state’s percentage of black 18- to 24-year-old residents and how the difference between the percentage of black female students and the percentage of black male students compared to the national ratio. The report also compared the six-year graduation rates for black students and overall graduation rates for undergraduate students. The researchers additionally looked at the ratio of full-time, degree seeking black students to full-time black faculty members.

Nearly eight months after the initial report was published, some of the 35 schools that scored the lowest argue that they have been taking active steps to improve resources for their black students. After speaking with 17 university spokespersons, presidents, faculty and students, similar themes emerged for why the schools struggled to perform well in the areas noted by the report. Many schools cited their statuses as predominantly indigenous- or Latino-serving institutions, their town’s small population of black residents and their rural locations.

Fort Lewis received F’s in three areas: gender equity, completion equity and black student-to-black faculty ratio.

Junior Taylor O’Neal, who identifies as black and Alaskan native, said that if it weren’t for Fort Lewis’ tuition waiver for indigenous students and the friends she found through the Black Student Union, she would have never transferred to the college. O’Neal said that the resources available to black students at the institution were so few that they could not be compared to the resources she found at her previous universities, Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California. 

Courtesy of the Fort Lewis College Black Student Union
In this Friday, April 12, 2019, photo, Fort Lewis College student and Black Student Union member Taylor Oneal poses on the college's campus in Durango, Colorado.

“I feel like there’s so little support for black students — the least amount of support I’ve ever experienced in education,” O’Neal said. “This was one of my opportunities to attend college and get an education, and it’s at a place where it’s really hard to stay on course.”

To help create a support system for students like O’Neal, this academic year, Black Student Union President Kaidee Akullo and other Black Student Union members opened the campus’ first Black Student Resource Center, a student-run space where Akullo said black students could “build a strong community and have access to resources specific to our community.”

The Fort Lewis students who NBC spoke with claimed that the Black Student Union had been integral to providing resources the college failed to offer. 

“There’s been a lot of growth in the past years that I’ve been here, but a lot of the growth has been student driven,” Akullo said. “So it’s coming from within the community versus being an issue that the administration sees needs fixing so that we can have a better time here at the school.”

Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus said Akullo and other Black Student Union members were “accurate” to claim students were leading in providing important resources for their black peers. 

Stritikus, however, said he was concerned about black student equity even before he saw the USC report. Since becoming president less than a year ago, Stritikus said he has been focusing on hearing student grievances and addressing concerns about student and faculty diversity.

“One of the things that we launched even before that report started was a faculty diversity initiative to make sure that our hiring practices were yielding diverse candidate pools,” Stritikus said.

Last fall, Stritikus created the Presidential Diversity Council, which includes members from a variety of student groups, including the Black Student Union. The council gives input on the administration’s new diversity policies and initiatives. 

Stritikus hopes to hear more student feedback from a climate survey that will include questions about inclusion and a sense of belonging on campus. He also said he wants to create a centralized student support service center and establish a program for first year students to increase resources for all students and make the college transition easier.

“Our position is we want to ensure every student on this campus feels a sense of belonging and a sense of inclusion on our campus,” Stritikus said. “We acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do.” 

Like Fort Lewis College, other institutions ranked low on the list also admitted that they still have a lot of progress to make, but they also said the report does not tell the full story. 

Ronalda Cadiente-Brown, the associate vice chancellor for Alaska Native Programs at the University of Alaska Southeast and director of the School of Education Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools, said her university did not have enough African-American students to allow it to offer the same resources it provides for the school’s other populations. 

The University of Alaska Southeast received three F’s because of its gender disparity between black students (the student body is overwhelmingly female), the difference in graduation rate for black students and the lack of black full-time faculty members. 

“In terms of African-American students, I would say that we don’t have the population density that would enrich us to do what we’ve done with other populations, meaning clubs, advisers, faculty and the like,” Cadiente-Brown said. 

At the start of the 2017-2018 academic year, about 1.3% of full-time undergraduate attendees identified as black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite having a predominantly white student population, the Juneau, Alaska campus is a nationally recognized Native-American serving institution with 12.4% of undergraduate students identifying as Alaskan natives or American Indians in 2017.

The University of Alaska Southeast was one of four minority serving public institutions to be ranked among the top 10 lowest report scores. 

Cadiente-Brown’s explanation for the resources gap mirrored those given by administrators at Aberdeen, South Dakota’s Northern State University.

Like the University of Alaska Southeast, Northern received three F’s because most of its black students are male, black students’ graduation rate is more than three times smaller than the university’s overall graduation rate and the school employs no full-time, black faculty. But compared to the Alaskan institution, Northern State University’s student population is 84% white with no other ethnic or racial group representing more than 5%.

Although Diversity Coordinator and Director of Multicultural Student Affairs Layton Cooper said “the data doesn’t lie,” Cooper also said he doesn’t think the report is a true reflection of the school or the town.

“I think that while you do have numbers, data and statistics, it really doesn’t tell the whole story,” Layton, a black Chicago native that moved to Aberdeen 13 years ago. “I think we’re headed in the right direction in terms of staffing, and I think the students that are here of color would say that they do feel welcomed and they do know that they have people that can connect with them and speak with them in their own way.”

A student shared that although he hasn’t always felt at home at Northern, that’s starting to change.

Northern State University junior Harrison Bruns felt so uncomfortable at the school that about a month into his first semester he called his mom and begged her to let him transfer to a school like Howard University, a historically black institution. Although Bruns said he visited his grandmother in Aberdeen regularly before enrolling at Northern, he was stunned by the lack of diversity compared to his Minnesota high school. 

Courtesy of Northern State University
In this photo taken on an unknown date, Northern State University student Harrison Bruns poses in his Speech and Debate team uniform.

“Coming to Northern it was weird being the only black kid in a class, which happened to me on multiple occasions,” Bruns said. “That’s super weird coming from a high school where me and a third of the class was black. It was more of a cultural shock getting taken out of living in an environment that was relatively diverse and coming here.”

After Bruns’ mother told him to at least finish his school year before deciding to transfer, Bruns began to get more involved in student organizations. Through his position as a president of the Campus Activity Board, Bruns has hosted events that bring diverse voices, like that of black comedian Erin Jackson, to campus. 

Bruns cited the appointment of Dr. Timothy Downs as the school’s president during Brun’s freshman year as a possible factor in what Bruns sees as positive changes. 

Northern State University has been taking active steps to address the issues highlighted in the report and the lack of diversity that soured Bruns’ freshman year, according to university Spokesperson Justin Fraase.

Through programs like TRIO — a federal education program that provides resources to low-income, first-generation and disabled students — and the Student Success Center, Fraase said the university has been able to increase retention rates for freshman and sophomores to more than 72%. 

Fraase said that the administration is also encouraging its admission counselors to expand their recruitment to cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota and St. Paul, Minnesota, which are considerably more diverse than Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Northern and other public universities will allow incoming students from Colorado, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming to pay South Dakota in-state tuition rates as part of a statewide initiative to expand South Dakota’s workforce, according to a South Dakota Board of Regents press release. Fraase said the new South Dakota Advantage tuition program — along with the state’s long-running tuition agreement with Minnesota — will help Northern State University compete with surrounding instate schools and institutions in larger metropolitan areas like Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado.

The university is also trying to increase its faculty’s diversity by revamping human resource policies and posting job openings on more websites so that more people see them.

“In addition to ensuring that we get our students out, graduated and ready for the workforce, we also need to bring diversity to Aberdeen and be one of those catalysts of change for Aberdeen,” Fraase said. “I think that falls on us as a higher [education] institution, and I think we accept that challenge.”

Isaiah Simmons, one of the report’s creators, occasionally agreed that some of the factors that caused the universities to fail in certain categories are difficult to resolve. Simmons acknowledged that institutions that received low scores for representation equity because the percentage of enrolled black students did not equal the state’s percentage of college-aged black individuals are not completely at fault.

“Things like that are a bit harder to measure, but I think what you can do is you can still look to create an environment and atmosphere that is welcoming towards people from various racial identities,” Simmons said.

Simmons also commended schools like the University of Alaska Southeast for supporting an underserved minority group, although he said that doesn’t give the institution “a license to ignore investing.” 

Even if the area around the school lacks diversity, Simmons suggested that administrators expand their recruitment to more diverse locals, train their staff to promote diversity and bring diverse perspectives to campus through public speakers.

To those who argued that the report did not show the whole story, Simmons responded, “The numbers are what they are.” Statistics used in the report are based on federally reported data on public universities. Simmons added that the rankings are simply a reality check to concretely show schools what they’re doing wrong and right. Ultimately, Simmons said, time will tell if the university’s policies to increase resources for black students are working. 

“Now more than ever, especially for these underrepresented populations and students, if you’re going to invest the time and opportunity cost into going to college, it’s important to demonstrate that it’s a place where you can go and thrive and succeed,” Simmons said.

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