Nationally, public flagship universities continue to profess support for diversity, but their enrollments tell a different story. In fact, many enroll a smaller proportion of Black students today than they did two decades ago, according to a recent report from The Education Trust, which examined access at the 101 most selective state flagships in the country.

The report comes as widespread protests and a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting people of color underscore just how stark racial inequities in the U.S. still are, and its key findings suggest that many flagships aren’t doing enough to boost access and success for underrepresented students:

  • Since 2000, the percentage of Black students has decreased at 60% of these universities.
  • Universities in states with sizable Black populations are the least accessible for Black students.
  • A mere 9% of selective state flagships enroll representative numbers of Black students; while just 14% of them enroll representative numbers of Latino students.
  • Three-quarters of the nation’s Latinos live in nine states, but 3 out of 4 of the colleges in those states scored a D or F for Latino student representation on campus, as compared with their state population.

In fact, few flagships have made any real gains on the diversity front. But University at Albany (SUNY) and University of Central Florida were among those whose efforts seem to be paying off. We sat down with administrators and students at those schools to find out what they’re doing and what others might learn from them. Here’s what they said.

Leadership matters

It all starts at the top, said Carol Kim, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University at Albany, which is in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. The president sets the institutional tone and agenda and makes key hiring and budget decisions, so the campus culture isn’t going to change unless your leader understands the importance of racial equity, and values diversity and inclusion enough to want to prioritize them, she said.

In the case of U Albany, it helps that “our president, Havidán Rodríguez, is Latino, and that I’m an Asian woman, because our students can see that these positions are not occupied by White men, that diversity is important to us, and that we want to change our campus,” Kim added.

Leadership sets the tone, establishes priorities, makes decisions on investments and makes key hires, so having leaders who prioritize equity and diversity is key to advancing racial equity.

Building diversity and inclusion is a team sport

That’s not to say that leaders of color have a monopoly on building diversity, just that it helps to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. UCF President Alexander Cartwright seconds that. He came to the U.S. from the Bahamas and was the first in his family to attend college — earning his GED and starting at a community college before transferring to a four-year university. His academic journey is not unlike that of many UCF students — a large proportion of whom are first generation and/or transfer students.

In fact, both Cartwright and Rodríguez, who is the first (but no longer the only) Latino president in the SUNY system, were quick to point out that cultivating diversity is not the job of any one person or group. Nor is it solely the purview of the President’s Office or the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. “It’s everybody’s responsibility,” Rodríguez said, even as he acknowledged that it frequently falls on the Latino or Latina or the African American or the Native American in the room to call attention to this issue. He stressed the importance of having broad support, and noted that the first step to changing the biases, practices, and systems that privilege affluent White students and exclude students of color — a lot of whom are first-generation and from low-income backgrounds — is teaching others to recognize them, so it’s a sign of progress “when people who are not of those minority communities stand up and discuss those issues.”

But the obstacles facing these students — not least of which are navigating how to get into college and pay for it — are high (and only growing higher amid the pandemic).

That’s why colleges need to build pipelines to help bring them in

One of U Albany’s pipelines is the Educational Opportunity Program (or EOP), which recruits economically and academically disadvantaged students, many of them students of color, from around the state, and gives them discounted tuition, a summer orientation, and other supports such as mentoring and tutoring. Its effectiveness is striking. In fall 2019, 38% of the entering 826 EOP students were Black and 48% were Latino, compared to about 18% and 15% respectively of the university’s student body.

At UCF, meanwhile, the DirectConnect program, which guarantees admission for transfer students from six regional state colleges who’ve earned an associate of arts or articulated sciences degree, has helped thousands of first-generation students, students of color, and students from low-income backgrounds earn a four-year degree, all while making the UCF campus much more diverse. According to the most recent program data, 12% of DirectConnect students in 2017-18 were Black and 30% were Latino compared with 11.2% and 25.2% of the broader UCF student body.

Daniela González is one of them. A first-generation rising senior from Colombia, González came to the U.S. to study psychology. She thought attending Valencia College, a local community college in Orlando, was her only option — for financial reasons and because she spoke little English when she arrived — until the DirectConnect program (and Kimberly Ortiz, her DirectConnect success coach) opened a door to UCF. Gonzalez credits Ortiz, who is herself Hispanic and a UCF grad, with pushing her to pursue her dream of attending a four-year college and helping her chart a successful path to a degree. “I never thought that I will be college material. I never thought I was good enough to succeed because of my accent,” but Ortiz “was an inspiration to me because she also came to this country and had to learn English and was somebody I could relate to. Having her as a coach, it was like, if she could do it, I can do it, too,” said González, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology.

Experiences like hers help explain why these programs are so successful. These students not only see themselves and their experiences reflected in the staff of these programs but, more importantly, have an institutional resource to help them navigate institutional obstacles that can hinder student success.

Recruiting diverse students is only part of the equation

But what happens after students arrive on campus is equally, if not more, important, according to those we interviewed.

“It doesn’t matter if you recruit a significant number of students of color or underrepresented minority students, if you’re not able to retain them or graduate them,” U Albany President Rodríguez told us, noting that “access and success are intrinsically tied together.”

That’s why his university is making a concerted effort to diversify its advising and mentoring staff — a quarter of which is Black or Latino — along with the faculty and student body. The thinking is that the advising center is one of the first places new students go for guidance on adjusting to collegiate life and students may benefit from seeing themselves reflected in those offering guidance to students.

UCF’s president, Alexander Cartwright, believes that cultivating a sense belonging is a crucial piece of the puzzle. “We know that students are more successful when they feel connected to the institution” and that “you don’t get connected to the institution through the physical buildings. You get connected through people.”

González has experienced this firsthand. Her UCF professors often go above and beyond their job descriptions, she told us. Alvin Wang, a psychology professor whom she considers a mentor, is a case in point. He has encouraged González to build her résumé, and often shares books and grant opportunities with her, González told us, noting that “He doesn’t get paid to be a mentor; he saw potential in me and allowed me to work with him.” This type of support makes students feel welcome and connects them not only academically but also socially.

While faculty play a key part in fostering students’ sense of belonging — via the classroom, office hours, research- and service-learning projects, as mentors, and the like — anyone who’s been to college knows that students learn as much or more from their friends and classmates as they do from professors, Cartwright said. That’s why it’s so important for an institution to have students from many different backgrounds and many different lived experiences, he added.

In fact, the power and potential of pipeline programs like DirectConnect and EOP is in their ability to bring a critical mass of those students to campus and build out a community to the point where students of color feel more comfortable. That, in turn, “helps you recruit more amazing students, because they can see themselves going to this institution,” he observed.

González couldn’t agree more. Hearing and seeing the rich diversity of UCF on her first day — students speaking Spanish, flyers for clubs and organizations in different languages, flags from around the world in the Student Union, for example — made her feel instantly connected to the campus.

Staying connected with students during COVID-19

Those connections matter now more than ever.

But how can these universities maintain them amid a raging pandemic, social distancing requirements, and the move to remote learning? And how can they ensure that the pandemic won’t erase the progress they’ve made on access and diversity?, we asked.

Those are major concerns at U Albany, said President Rodríguez, since many of the university’s students hail from Brooklyn or Queens or Long Island and could opt to stay closer to home and not come back to the institution.

To address some of those challenges, U Albany is reaching out to students regularly. Staff have been calling students to see how they are doing and what they need. Meanwhile, President Rodríguez has phoned and written letters to a number of EOP students who’ve lost family members to COVID-19 to let them know that they’re part of the university community, that people at the university care about them and are here to help, he said.

The university has also raised nearly $300,000 for the student emergency fund and sent checks generally ranging from $100 to $800 to over 600 students who are struggling to meet basic needs, like buying groceries or paying for rent or utilities.

Realizing early on that access to technology would be an issue for many students, the university repackaged the computers in the computer lab and the library, and sent them to 200 or so to students, U Albany Provost Carol Kim recalled.

Such actions might not seem like much, but they’re critically important and can have a major impact, said Rodríguez, who noted that small gestures “signal to students that we care.”

UCF has taken similar steps, but those strategies may only be part of the solution, President Cartwright said, noting that it could be some time before all classes fully resume in person. While he admitted he doesn’t have all the answers, he said his university is thinking about digital tools and nontraditional ways of building community. Academia might emulate the gaming community, he suggested, which has built virtual communities all over the world, using tools like Discord, a text and voice application which lets users create their own communities and converse with each other. “It’s a different way of thinking about community,” said Cartwright, who believes academic institutions could well find new ways to connect with students as a result of COVID-19.

In the meantime, both he and Rodríguez said they’re taking things day by day. They stressed that the work of building a diverse and inclusive campus culture is ongoing and never-ending. While they hope the U.S. and American universities may be reaching an inflection point on diversity, equity, and inclusion — everyone is talking about these issues and there’s not a university out there right now that will tell you they’re not committed to them, Rodríguez noted — they say talk is cheap.

Ultimately, they agreed, success can only be built on the recognition that diversity isn’t a one-off or a fad, but our country’s demographic future.