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Among Flagships, Illinois Lags In Racial Equity

Dusty Rhodes
NPR Illinois

A recent study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy shows that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stands out among similar schools for its low percentage of minority students.

The study looked at flagship universities around the Great Lakes to gauge whether they offer equal access for under-represented minorities and low-income students, and whether those students, once-admitted, succeed.

Specifically, the study focuses on Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native students — students who are under-represented in higher education nationwide.

The study uses a really basic yardstick. The researchers simply compared each state’s crop of high school graduates with the following year’s freshman class at its main public university. If the percentage of underrepresented minorities is higher in the first group than the second, that’s an equity gap. Using this measure, all six Great Lake flaships have a gap. But Illinois has the biggest gap. By far.

“The access gaps at UIUC are pretty substantial for students of color,” says Mamie Voight, vice-president for policy research at IHEP and co-author of the study. “So while 20 percent of students at UIUC are students of color, 38 percent of high school graduates are, that previous year. So there’s an 18-point gap between the demographics of the high school graduating class and the entering freshman class. That’s really substantial.”

By comparison, the gaps at other Great Lakes flagships are about half as big: 10 percentage points at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan; 9 at Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin (Madison); and just 7 percentage points at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities).

“And we’ve seen the gaps really increase over time at UIUC,” Voight says. “Since 2001, the access gap for students of color has actually doubled. It was 9 percentage points in 2001; it’s up to 18 percentage points in 2016. So we see that this is moving in the wrong direction.

“So there are multiple things at play here, but a large part of it is that the state of Illinois is becoming far more diverse, and the university — which does have a responsibility to serve the students in their state as a public flagship institution — is failing to keep pace with those changing state demographics.”

The study also tracks a handful of university policies that can hinder minority enrollment, including how financial aid is distributed and whether the school offers admissions preference for freshman who make early decisions, show “demonstrated interest” (such as a campus visit) or are legacy applicants. Of the five potentially-negative policies IHEP tracks, UIUC uses only one: It doesn’t “ban the box” that asks about a student’s interactions with the criminal justice system. on application forms.

By that metric, UIUC does better than most other Great Lakes flagships, some of which use several impeding policies. But Voight says there’s another factor that can’t be measured.

“Really changing the trend in access for low-income students and students of color comes down to institutional leadership and setting priorities and making choices about how to use their resources and how to design their recruitment and enrollment and admissions efforts to really prioritize equity for students of color and low-income students,” she says.

Kevin Pitts, UIUC’s vice provost for undergraduate education, acknowledges the gap. “Numbers don’t lie,” he says. And he says the university is trying several strategies designed to both recruit and support underrepresented minorities.

But Pitts also points out that Voight’s study doesn’t quite capture the flavor of UIUC’s student body. UIUC has more international students than all but five other schools nationwide, and certainly more than any other Great Lakes flagship.

Voight’s study doesn’t specifically address this issue. She says international students would just count as out-of-state admissions, and that’s a trend that’s been increasing nationwide.

“At UIUC, they’ve increased the percent of students that are from outside the state of Illinois by 21 percentage points over the last 30 years. And that can work against these efforts to open opportunity and serve students in the state who are from low-income backgrounds or are students of color,” Voight says, “because they tend to be recruiting higher-income students from out-of-state, who can pay those higher tuition charges.”

UIUC charges international students an additional surcharge — anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per year, depending on the program — over and above the out-of-state rate. Pitts says half of those charges go into a fund that provides scholarships Illinois students. Some of those scholarships are based on financial need; some are based on merit.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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