Written by Serie McDougal and Sureshi Jayawardene
Recently, Shaun Harper and Isaiah Simmons of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California authored a 50-state report card assessing the status of Black students at 506 individual public colleges and universities. They made this assessment using four “equity indicators” to essentially grade public colleges and universities and ultimately assign them an equity index score similar to a grade point average. Harper and Simmons (2019) note that there are more than 900,000 Black undergraduates enrolled at public colleges and universities across the US. That’s more than 900,000 Black undergraduates whose education and future lives are impacted by the educational environments they experience. As we know, for African Americans, inequities are not such forces that are easily overcome, but tend to have long-lasting and even intergenerational effects.
Keeping this figure of Black undergraduates in the nation at the forefront of our minds is important as we consider the utility of Harper and Simmons’s (2019) report card and the equity index scores. For instance, these scores can be useful for individual public institutions of higher education in their strategic planning around diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially as they design programs and policies to support the equitable education, attainment, and retention of their Black student populations. They can be useful for faculty who teach, mentor, advise, and conduct research with Black undergraduates. These scores are equally important for Black families exploring the best and most competitive higher education opportunities for their students. Harper and Simmons (2019) note, their approach to scoring these institutions is predicated on making “inequities more transparent and to equip anyone concerned about enrollment, success, and college completion rates for Black students with numbers they can use to demand corrective policies and institutional actions” (p.3).
The four equity measures highlight evidence of the presence or absence of equity in key areas: representation, gender, degree completion, and Black student-to-Black faculty ratio. Among their major findings, Harper and Simmons (2019) found that Black students are under-enrolled relative to their population in their specific states in three-fourths of the institutions. Also, only 39.4% of Black students completed their bachelor’s degrees compared to 50.6% of undergraduates overall.
A finding that stands out as exceptional, yet not surprising, is that there was a ratio of 42 Black students to every Black faculty member and 40 of the institutions employed no full-time Black faculty. This stands out not only as a finding but as a measure of equity as well. It is important that future measures of equity include this ratio given the significance of the presence of Black faculty for Black students. The presence of Black faculty is directly related to Black student success because their presence is positively related to Black graduate and professional students’ rates of enrollment and graduation. However, Black faculty are challenged by the need to work with students within and outside of their academic disciplines and they must also contend with racism, isolation, and being overburdened by responsibilities on college campuses (Pulliam & McGregory, 2009).
Another highlight of this report is that across all 506 institutions, the average Equity Index Score was 2.02. The authors further indicate that no institution received above 3.50. Of the 506 institutions assessed, 200 earned scores below 2.00. This is important information for parents and students especially, because it highlights how persistent educational inequity may be in their home states and the educational opportunities therein. While this information is not new to African American communities who have resisted educational constraints and barriers for generations, Harper and Simmons’s (2019) report gives us clearer portraits of the actual areas in which these public universities and colleges are inequitable for our children.
Finally, Harper and Simmons (2019) caution that their findings should not be used to reinforce deficit narratives about Black students and their achievements and aspirations. Rather, they urge readers, educators, universities, and policymakers to use the data to better understand how systems and structures uphold inequities Black students face and compel them to implement correctives. You can read and/or download the report here and see specific and detailed information for the equity indicators for each institution and within each state.
Harper, S. R., & Simmons, I. (2019). Black students at public colleges and universities: A 50-state report card. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, Race and Equity Center.
Pulliam, R.L. & McGregory, R.C. (2009). In pursuit of African American males as scholars: Prescriptive viewpoints. In T.H. Frierson, J.H. Wyche & W. Pearson, Black American males in higher education: Research, programs, and academe (pp. 331-355). Bingley: Emerald.