For years, information about college equity has focused on the admission and graduation rates of Black students rather than their student experiences in between. These statistics fail to capture the many qualitative aspects of a Black student’s lived experience in college. In June 2020, I (Dr. Debra A. Felix, Ph.D., a former Director of Admissions at Columbia University, and Executive Director of Felix Educational Consulting) was at a loss as to how to advise the Black students with whom I was working on the racial climate of campuses they were considering. I knew that many colleges were working hard to become more welcoming and anti-racist, but which were succeeding? I didn’t know. Given that my clients spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives on their college education, it has always been crucial to me that they choose a college at which they will thrive.
Online searches turned up the percentage of Black students on campus, the New York Times Access Index, and a tiny, word-of-mouth list compiled by an educational consultant who asked a few of his colleagues what they thought. Unfortunately, none of these data revealed much about the day-to-day experiences Black students have on our college campuses. I contacted my colleague Dr. Monica E. Randall, Ph.D., Founding Principal of Bridge2College Consulting, who agreed to collaborate to find a way to evaluate the racial climate for Black students at selective private colleges in the U.S. In October 2020, we brought on board Ms. Sydney Montgomery, Esq., Founder of S. Montgomery Admissions Consulting, to add another valuable perspective to our ongoing work.
The three of us decided to collect relevant data that might illuminate which private colleges would make Black students feel most safe, supported, developed, and valued. Because we do not consider a suitable environment for Black students alone to be sufficient, however, we included in our evaluation various measures of the overall strength of each college’s academic programs to ensure our students would get a top-quality education wherever they went.
Thinking it would be great if parents, students, educational consultants, and high school counselors had an easy way to evaluate colleges for Black students both objectively and relative to one another, we decided to calculate a score for each, then list them in an easy-to-understand index we later named the College Equity Index™.
Most rankings and indices in education are based primarily or exclusively on quantitative data, such as admission rate and yield. Given that we were trying to assess the lived experience of Black students on campuses, we felt it was crucial to gather qualitative data as well. Fortunately, mainstream and social media now online provided a wealth of reports and a clearer window into the lives of Black college students.
We developed the College Equity Index™ primarily to help Black high school students decide where to apply to college.
We began our investigation by crossing the list of 314 colleges evaluated in the 2021 Fiske Guide to Colleges, arguably the most “selective” and “interesting” colleges in the United States, with the 227 colleges rated by alumni in The Alumni Factor: A Revolution in College Rankings, last published in 2013. We then used our professional judgment to add several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and others we felt might be good choices for Black students.
To draw a better picture of the racial context on each campus, we selected 19 criteria to evaluate those on our list. Taken together, the criteria suggest levels of access, affordability, campus culture, student and faculty diversity, graduation rates, career readiness, and overall return on investment. The New York Times Access Index, for example, approximates access to college based on a combination of the number of lower- and middle-income students a college enrolls and the price it charges these students. A higher percentage of Black faculty on campus serves as a proxy for possible empathic mentors available to Black students. The 19 criteria/data points we used follow:
Creating the Index
Once we had complete data, we assigned weights to the various quantitative measures, then created an algorithm to generate a score for each college. We awarded additional points to colleges for each of these:
Qualitative data from media sources provided context for the rest of the data and allowed us to holistically assess the racial climate at each college or university as a check against the relative validity of the quantitative totals. (If the qualitative data suggested an abysmal climate for Black students, we would expect the college’s quantitative Index score to be appropriately low and vice versa). Finally, we awarded letter grades to each college according to its score using the A-to-F grading system most schools use to evaluate student work.
We eliminated colleges from the list if we were unable to find or reasonably extrapolate critical data about them or if they had the lowest overall scores. We also eliminated colleges that had fewer than 3% Black students on campus because having such a small number of Black students not only suggests a lack of access and possibly support but also skews other data. For example, if there are only four Black students at a college, a 100% graduation rate might be easy to achieve and could overstate the amount of academic and social support Black students receive there.
We selected 19 criteria to evaluate colleges on our list. Taken together, the criteria suggest levels of access, affordability, campus culture, student and faculty diversity, graduation rates, career readiness, and overall return on investment.
Our findings were, on the whole, disturbing. Although many private colleges on our list are working earnestly to become more welcoming and anti-racist, most are still hostile places for Black students in 2021, with the exception of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We found thousands of anecdotes detailing racist behavior and highlighting the toxicity and trauma Black students experience daily on predominantly white campuses, with none of the predominantly white institutions (PWIs) immune to racism.
Among common reports:
Here are a few examples:
“My first day of orientation, I was surrounded by white students, all of whom seemed wealthier than myself. They were being dropped off in luxury cars. I was not used to this scene, as I am from a lower middle-class part of St. Louis, where those cars are not seen as often. A white male came up to me and asked, ‘Are you the help?’ Ever since I set foot on this campus, I am always reminded that I am not supposed to be here, whether it be my peers disregarding my opinions or my professors refusing to acknowledge my voice. I thought going to [this college] was going to be an amazing journey, but it turns out, this place is no different from an affluent, white, suburban neighborhood where I constantly feel I do not belong.” (@blackivystories post)
“When asking for help on a triple integral problem, the professor immediately said that the problem was basic and not being able to understand it only signaled a lack of effort in the class, but when a white student also agreed that they needed help on it, he finally conceded that it was somewhat tricky and decided to teach.” (@blackivystories post)
“Being Black at [this college] meant going to parties where people would yell ‘go back to Africa’ at me while the people that were my ‘friends’ dismissed it as drunken banter. Being Black at [this college] meant fielding questions from classmates about why you were admitted and facing down the accusation that your only merit was affirmative action.” (Instagram post)
“There’s a lot of racist people that don’t go to the college but are around it... I have bad problems with panic and anxiety, and it’s to the point [that] I’m afraid of every truck that drives down the street because nine out of 10 times, they’re yelling things or throwing things at me as I’m walking down the street.” (1)
Unsurprisingly, several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) topped the College Equity Index™ as places where Black students are likely to thrive academically and socially. Meanwhile, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are failing to provide Black students with diverse, anti-racist cultures in which their financial, social, emotional, academic, and career development needs are met. Black students instead are being underserved or even set back by nearly everyone at every PWI, including staff, students, faculty, visitors, and local community members.
We also saw examples of institutionally embedded racism ranging from omitting Black writers, musicians, and artists from English, Music, and Arts curricula to reacting negatively to all-Black groups on campus but never commenting on the many all-white groups. Also common were reports of calls to security about Black students being on campus or entering residence halls. In addition, we saw reports of a general culture of inaction and apathy when a Black student reported any kind of problem or assault. In some cases, Black students were even blamed for what had happened to them or baselessly accused of seeking attention or committing an infraction themselves.
We developed the College Equity Index™ primarily to help Black high school students decide where to apply to college, but what became abundantly clear is that the PWIs need to take significant steps to make their campuses safer and more equitable for Black students. Colleges and universities should be held accountable for the spaces and experiences they create for Black students. We hope the College Equity Index™ will spark change on college campuses.
Our findings were, on the whole, disturbing. Although many private colleges on our list are working earnestly to become more welcoming and anti-racist, most are still hostile places for Black students in 2021.
For Black college applicants trying to evaluate campus equity and inclusion, we recommend:
For colleges and universities that want to effect meaningful change right now, we recommend:
Black students deserve the opportunity to attend selective, private institutions, to be safe there, and to receive the same opportunities, quality of education, and support as their white peers. The private colleges we reviewed are some of the most prestigious and competitive in the country. They offer some of the best educational programs in the world, and they will shape our leaders for decades to come. As such, they have an obligation to continually refine their efforts to safely and fairly educate our most talented students regardless of skin color.
Special thanks to the following for their generous support for this project:
Ellen Anthony, Member, Racial Justice Provincetown (MA)
Christopher Hunt, founder of College Essay Mentor, LLC.
Marcelo Gonzales Montoya
Black students deserve the opportunity to attend selective, private institutions, to be safe there, and to receive the same opportunities, quality of education, and support as their white peers.
Copyright © 2021 College Equity First, Inc. - All Rights Reserved. College Equity First, Inc. DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE ON THE BASIS OF RACE, RELIGION, GENDER, CITIZENSHIP, ETHNIC OR NATIONAL ORIGIN, AGE, DISABILITY, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY OR EXPRESSION.
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