USC Black Students at Public Colleges and Universities report
By MARTY LEVINE
A national rating of success for universities in enrolling and graduating black students and in hiring black faculty gave mixed grades to four of Pitt’s campuses: Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Greensburg and Bradford.
The issues highlighted in the study are a national problem and the legacy of centuries of unequal treatment of African Americans, say administrators in Pitt’s School of Education and the School of Social Work’s Center for Race and Social Problems. While Pitt is doing better in recent years, says CRSP head Larry Davis, both he and Leigh Patel, associate dean of equity and justice in the education school, say inequities will remain visible on campuses and will do so until the nation, aided but not necessarily led by universities, faces this legacy head on.
The study released earlier this term by the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education looked at 900,000 black undergraduates at all four-year, non-specialized, public postsecondary universities in the U.S. For each campus, it compared:
- Black student enrollment to the black population of 18- to 24-year-olds in each state.
- The ratio of male to female black enrollment to national male and female black populations.
- Six-year black student graduation rates to overall undergraduate graduation rates per institution.
- The ratio of full-time black students to full-time black faculty at each institution.
Study authors cautioned that even some of the good grades may give a false impression, particularly when measuring the ratio of black students to black faculty, since “some institutions that employ a pathetically low number of full-time black instructional faculty members (also) enroll very few full-time, degree-seeking black undergraduates.”
Study results: Black student enrollment
Enrollment of black students, compared to state populations of college-age African-Americans, is low on the Pitt campuses covered by the study apart from Bradford, which earned a B grade with 13.4 percent black students (165 out of 1,281 total undergraduates enrolled in 2018, according to the 2019 Pitt Fact Book).
Compared to Pennsylvania’s 14.2 percent black adults 18-24, the Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Greensburg campuses earned D grades: Pittsburgh with 5.1 percent black students (972 of 19,330 total undergrads); Johnstown, 4 percent (119 of 2,600); and Greensburg, 6 percent (81 of 1,508).
When we look at how the history of racism and capitalism have always combined in this country, it naturally prohibits a black person from saying, ‘I should go check out Yale.’ Race and class have combined to create a certain kind of inequity cauldron … that may discourage (black students) from continuing or completing (college).
Leigh Patel, associate dean of equity and justice in the School of Education
According to an Office of Admissions fact sheet, 7 percent of undergraduates in Pitt’s class of 2022 are black.
The study found that black people make up 14.6 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds nationally but only 9.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates at all public colleges and universities, and that more than 75 percent of such institutions had lower than average black enrollment.
“Rarely do universities have the percentage of black students that are represented in the state,” Davis noted. “You can’t expect those numbers to look proportional if the high-school graduation rate is not proportional.
“Pitt is a hard place to get into now,” he added, while Bradford gained black enrollment because its lower admissions criteria make it a stepping stone to the Pittsburgh campus, Davis posited.
High schools “haven’t been doing a good job of preparing black students for college. There’s still not enough black students being recruited,” he said. “I think Pitt has tried to do a better job. They’re aware of it and are really trying to make efforts and have made efforts to do better. But this is a struggle for all major universities.”
Not only do we need to improve our recruitment of black students, said Patel, we need to “be able to anticipate and be responsive to how their needs may be” met, once on campus. “How much does our curriculum reflect the history of these young people, and do we teach that history?”
Study results: Black student gender balance
Citing a national rate of 48 percent black male to 52 percent black female undergraduate enrollment, the new study gives the Pittsburgh and Johnstown campuses A grades (Pittsburgh: 42.8 percent black male to 57.2 percent black female enrollment; Johnstown: 44 to 56 percent) while awarding a C to Greensburg (37.2 to 62.8 percent) and a D to Bradford (55.8 to 44.2 percent).
It’s important that both young males and females have equal access to higher education, noted Patel, since it gives these young adults the potential for social mobility. The cause of lower male enrollment starts in elementary school, she said, where black boys are disproportionately seen as acting out and thus disciplined more frequently and severely than black girls — and both are disciplined more often than their white classmates.
“When I look at these disparities, I can tell a lot about how black boys in the K-12 system are suspended at phenomenal rates,” Patel said.
Study results: Black student graduation
Nationally, on average 39.4 percent of black students graduate with bachelor’s degrees within six years; the average for all students is 50.6 percent, the study said. It found that 41 percent of public institutions of higher education graduated 33 percent or fewer black students within six years.
The study graded each Pitt campus’s black student graduation rate against its overall graduation rate, giving Bradford an A (46.7 percent of black students graduating vs. 49.9 percent of all students), while Greensburg earned a B (47.2 percent vs. 55 percent); Pittsburgh a C (70.7 percent vs. 81.3 percent) and Johnstown an F (30.3 percent vs. 53.4 percent).
African-American graduation rates — especially the lower graduation rate for black males, said Davis — are the end of a chain of events that began with unequal treatment of black males in K-12 schools and, consequently, unequal rates of college entry.
“It causes havoc on family construction,” he added, leaving more college-educated black women to decide to start families on their own when not enough college-educated males are available as partners.
To retain and aid black students, Patel said her school participates in a federal scholarship program, and offers its own equity and justice scholars program, aimed at increasing the graduation rate and encouraging applications to graduate school, offering mentoring and building a better black student community here.
Study results: Black faculty
The USC study found that, nationally, there are 42 full-time black students seeking degrees for every black faculty member at public universities. “On 44 percent of public campuses, there are 10 or fewer full-time black faculty members across all ranks and academic fields,” it said.
The University’s Pittsburgh campus earned an A from the study, with 106 black faculty for 925 black students (a 9:1 ratio); followed by Greensburg’s B grade (3 faculty; 86 students; 29:1 ratio); and D’s for Johnstown (2 faculty; 109 students; 55:1 ratio) and Bradford (3 faculty; 181 students; 60:1 ratio).
Often white faculty know very little about black people. It’s America’s problem. They don’t know how to benefit (black students) or what’s important to them. Nothing against them. It’s how the education system works. It’s not taught.
Larry Davis, head of the School of Social Work’s Center for Race and Social Problems
Davis, who served as dean of the School of Social Work from 2001-17, is surprised that any Pitt campus did well, since he says he sees so few black faculty here.
“Black faculty attract black students,” he noted. “They serve as mentors, role models and recruiters.”
The School of Social work gained Ph.D. students at a higher rate in recent years, he said, “because I’m a black dean. Because I recruited people. They don’t leave; they are received well.”
“Often white faculty know very little about black people. It’s America’s problem,” he said, due to general segregation of white and black neighborhoods and educational experiences. “They don’t know how to benefit (black students) or what’s important to them. Nothing against them. It’s how the education system works. It’s not taught.”
“A huge amount of research shows that (for) students who are minoritized (treated as inferior), it has a catapult effect to have a professor who not only looks like them but shares some of the same cultural experiences,” said Patel, who is South Asian. “I can feel it with the students of color I have had in my class. Because the opportunities have been so rare to have teachers that look like them … that’s why it makes a difference.”
It is also important “to have a curriculum that includes them, but not as a victim,” she said.
If the history of African Americans taught in college only concentrates on captured Africans being enslaved, “we’ve missed tremendous amounts of history. What is that student learning about themselves? It also does a great service to white students to learn a history that is much broader and richer about people of color.”
Conclusions: Long U.S. history to overcome
“We are a necessary but insufficient part of addressing the facts that are represented in this study,” Patel concluded.
The United States’ history of racism began with laws in the colonies that treated black people as less than human and have continued through slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods that prevented African-Americans from getting mortgages, and many other practices and policies affecting multiple parts of American life today, from law enforcement and health care to the educational system.
“This unseemly history is baked into every institution in the United States,” she said. “When we look at how the history of racism and capitalism have always combined in this country, it naturally prohibits a black person from saying, ‘I should go check out Yale.’ Race and class have combined to create a certain kind of inequity cauldron … that may discourage (black students) from continuing or completing (college).”
What can be done at Pitt, and nationally?
“One, increasing numbers of black students and faculty, and the number of community centers available to black students before entering higher ed,” to aid with college preparation, Patel said.
“The vast majority of teachers have been middle class white women,” she said. “That is a very big problem. They don’t share the cultural experience of their students. They may have implicit biases; they may think of their black students as at-risk or, worse, dangerous.
“We’ve all got a long way to go — even the places that got the A’s — to create an equitable society and how that might be reflected on college campuses.”
“Pitt’s trying to do better. But they’re a reflection of the past, too. It’s a complicated problem.”
Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.