Colleges and Racial Equality: Students Call on Their Institutions to Act
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Abby Huebler is a senior at the University of Delaware, where she is double-majoring in Economics and Environmental Studies, and minoring in Geography.
Colleges and universities have been places of protest, advocacy, activism, and social justice throughout history. From anti-war protests in the 1960s to marches fueled by the 2016 presidential election, college students have always gathered attention for their involvement in social movements. There has been no exception when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for anti-racism in 2020.
Recently, college students have been calling out and calling on the institutions they attend, especially predominantly white institutions, to take an anti-racist stand and commit to diversity and inclusion in ways that go beyond just a mission statement on their website. A 2019 report by the American Council on Education shows that college students are more diverse than ever. This does not, however, make up for the undeniable gap in achievement that is perpetuated by the university system, largely due to financial inequities and the often-inaccessible costs of required testing, applications, and tuition. The report says that, “too many Black students fare poorly in America’s postsecondary education system. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, advances in Black students’ enrollment and attainment have been accompanied by some of the lowest persistence rates, highest undergraduate dropout rates, highest borrowing rates, and largest debt burdens of any group.” It also states that, “college, faculty, staff, and administrators remain predominantly White.”
In recent years, colleges and universities have highlighted their commitment to diversity and inclusion. In May, the University of California announced its plan to phase out the SAT and ACT from its admissions process in response to the tests’ scores consistent correlation with family income, race, and parent’s education level. This eliminates the disparity in applications between students who can afford tutoring, prep classes, and the costs of taking the tests multiple times versus those who cannot. Other big-name universities including Cornell and William and Mary have test-optional admission processes as well. In recent years, some universities have also implemented no-loan financial aid initiatives. These initiatives, implemented mostly by high ranking universities such as Harvard and Princeton, offer to meet student’s full financial needs in the form of grants, scholarships, or work studies to ensure that students who meet the school’s academic requirements are not deterred from applying due to their financial situation. However, only 11 universities have reported the implementation of these policies.
With the cost of a public college education having increased by 31 percent from 2007 to 2017, a lack of widespread aid availability like the no-loan policies implemented by Harvard and Princeton continues to leave many low-income and minority students without the ability to attend or even apply to college.
With so many barriers still in place, universities’ stated commitments to diversity often ring hollow. Osamudia James wrote in the Washington Post that colleges and universities have adopted “diversity-lite, a justification that functioned as a poor stand-in for a more substantive commitment to racial equality.”
Now, in light of current racial justice movements, students are asking their institutions to do more. Students are urging their administrations to make their commitments to diversity and equality more than just optical. At the University of Delaware, students drafted a letter to the administration that has amassed almost 2,500 signatures so far. It calls for action by the administration to foster a safe space for minority students and to address racist behavior by anyone who is affiliated with the university. It highlights an NPR segment that states that UD ranks among the worst in the nation in enrolling its state’s Black high school graduates. It also points to enrollment statistics that say that just 6 percent of UD’s student population is Black and 74 percent of faculty is white. The letter urges the administration to implement diversity training for all students and faculty and require cultural diversity, women and gender, or African studies classes in all curriculums that will allow students to understand today’s events in the context of the history of oppression in the U.S. The writers also criticized UD for allowing classes such as “Animals and Human Culture” and “Plants and Human Culture” to fulfill the university’s one-class multicultural requirement. Finally, the letter referred to an Instagram page that was created by students in June that allows students to anonymously share experiences of discrimination they have faced on campus, and urged the administration to read the stories shared there.
In response to these calls to action, UD’s president released a statement that discussed new policies that will be implemented such as mandatory diversity training, an assessment and revamp of the university’s faculty search process, and a plan to cultivate fundraising for social justice initiatives on campus. The University of Delaware, along with many universities across the country also closed to observe Juneteenth. This scenario at the University of Delaware does not stand alone. Two petitions proposing immediate anti-racist change were released at Cornell. The University of Mississippi voted to remove a Confederate monument on campus following a campaign by student activists, and colleges across the country are engaging in conversations with their students about anti-racism more than ever.
Higher education can highlight advantages and disadvantages associated with race and dismantling this gap will require action far more complex than taking down a statue or removing standardized testing from application processes. But these steps are a starting point that can allow for broader discussion about race on campus beyond just token representation. While we have yet to see all the steps colleges and universities will take in response to calls for racial justice, one thing is for sure. As this movement continues, students will and should continue to hold their institutions accountable when their actions do not follow the values that they claim to represent.