Facing current inclusion challenges as a demographic that makes up 2 percent of the student body, black students at the University of Wisconsin want change.
One contributing factor to the racial disparities at UW is the racial achievement gap in Wisconsin.
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A reflection of the achievement gap
Since 2007, when the headcount for black undergraduates peaked at 830 students, the rate at which black students enroll at UW has decreased, according to UW’s Data Digest. In 2014, 620 black students enrolled at UW, compared to 22,758 white students.
With the enrollment cap for out-of-state students being lifted, the university has committed to enrolling 3,600 Wisconsin residents in the upcoming freshman class. Considering the current enrollment demographics, Academic Planning and Institutional Research Director Jocelyn Milner said UW’s student body reflects the pool of students graduating from Wisconsin high schools.
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Milner said this has been an ongoing trend for more than 20 years. But when evaluating the persistence of black students’ 2 percent representation, Milner said it comes back to the state achievement gap, which has white students graduating high school at 93 percent and black students at 66 percent.
“The percentages are really low for enrollment of minority students and we can see that in the data,” Milner said. “And we’re a very big university so even though the numbers are low, they’re relatively large.”
In a previous interview with The Badger Herald, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said because of the state’s racial demographics, despite efforts to increase diversity coming from Wisconsin, a high share of diversity comes from out-of-state.
One factor Milner said should be kept in consideration is the option of selecting “two or more races” when self-identifying as an applicant to UW. After its introduction in 2008, federal regulations allowed students to identify with multiple racial backgrounds. In the first year of the added identifier, 224 undergraduates were shown to be of two or more races while black students were listed at 765, a decrease from the previous year.
Meeting high schools halfway
Noel Radomski, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education director, said UW isn’t doing as much as they can to work around the achievement gap and recruit black students from Wisconsin schools. While programs like PEOPLE and Posse serve underrepresented students, Radomski said UW’s other precollege programs aren’t strategic enough.
Aside from national programs like Posse program and First Wave, UW scholarship programs such as Chancellor’s, Powers-Knapp and PEOPLE program award students of historically underrepresented backgrounds scholarships.
Radomski questioned the type of work being done in cities with high underrepresented populations. He pointed out that Wisconsin schools — elementary, middle and high school— are becoming more diverse, but said UW isn’t doing enough in terms of established partnerships to tap into these schools.
“We send in admission counselors to select high schools and we’re doing it more and more out of state,” Radomski said. “So basically we’re writing off Milwaukee Public School District, Racine Unified School District and Beloit School District.”
While UW can find potentially successful or “extremely well-qualified” diverse students at the top of their class from out of state, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Steve Hahn said the university is better at recruiting from in-state than elsewhere.
Some relationships exist with schools and districts where the university recruits black students, but Hahn said there aren’t sufficient resources to recruit Wisconsin high school students as much as they would like. Hahn said people need to understand that black students have other options during the college process, and sometimes they enroll elsewhere due to differences in financial aid packages.
“They would like to stay in-state but maybe we didn’t give them that money,” he said. “So we need to find funds, raise funds and help the chancellor raise funds to allow those students based on need and/or merit to get the funding that will convince them to stay in the state.”
Radomski said the conflicts surrounding aid will only “make matters worse.” The university is already falling behind in terms of financial aid provisions and that, along with the increase in out-of-state tuition, will make accessibility to UW for black students more difficult, he said.
Accessing a UW education
The budget cuts, which led to the nonresident cap removal and increased nonresident tuition, are examples, UW senior and Wisconsin Black Student Member Kenneth Cole said, of how decisions made by the university aren’t fully considerate of the possible outcomes for minority students on campus. The tuition increase and UW’s low merit and need-based aid will make UW “significantly less” accessible to black students, Cole said.
But Blank said in terms of scholarship aid, that 25 percent of a tuition increase must always go back to funds for scholarship aid because it guarantees the tuition increase doesn’t “shut off [UW’s] flow of lower income students.”
“Watch what we do on this [matter of attracting diversity] because we will be held accountable for the mix of students that we bring in and the access of this university to lower income students, both in-state and out-of-state,” she said
Tyriek Mack, a UW sophomore and WBSU Member, agreed but added that if Wisconsin can’t even recruit black students to apply, none will enroll because they have to pay more in tuition dollars without a higher chance of receiving some type of aid. Ultimately, he sees the only students able to attend UW will be those who can afford it.
“The main reason [less black students will enroll] is because the university is now removing these caps to get more money,” Mack said. “It all comes down to money. Who got money? When you have to ask that question, who in America has money? It’s not black people, it’s not other minorities. It’s white people.”
Mack said the university isn’t as committed to diversity as they convey and that the enrollment cap removal will further narrow the pool of UW applicants. This in turn will sustain the challenges black students face when applying, he said.
Compared to black families who have moderate incomes, for low-income students, the feasibility of college is determined by whether or not they’ll receive financial aid, Cole said. Overall, he said UW is making it harder on prospective black students.
“If you’re going to expand out-of-state, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the resources to keep attracting the diverse mix,” Blank said.
Echoing both student’s sentiments, Radomski said the current outcomes, such as consistently low black representation, don’t reflect a commitment and that the cap being lifted will not improve the campus climate. With little need-based aid from the state or the university as well as average student loan debt at $28,768, wealthier students will apply to UW, he said.
Hahn said UW hopes to increase its merit and need-based aid, and coupled with active recruitment of students of color, won’t reduce access for those students. Because of that work, the out-of-state waiver and increase in tuition will not lead to low accessibility or decreased interest from students of color, he said. UW’s strong reputation will also help attract prospective students, he said.
As for the residency composition, Hahn said he’s “resisted the idea” that the university will “dramatically change” in the upcoming years.
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Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate and Diversity Framework leader Patrick Sims said the framework, which is designed to promote an inclusive and diverse environment, is in the process of being implemented, but it is moving along and making great progress.
Currently the university is having conversations about administering a campus climate survey to better understand UW’s strengths in respect to diversity and inclusion, but he said it’s “quite complex.”
But even though the framework is being implemented and administrators say they are working to increase diversity, Radomski said the university has an inclusion problem.
“UW-Madison is not only reflecting the inequalities in society, we’re to the point now where we’re contributing to the inequalities of society,” Radomski said. “What do we want to be as a university? What’s our vision and who do we want to educate? And I think now the answer is people who can afford it.”