Illustration by Andrea Levy

How higher education is failing Black Americans in the Midwest

Roughly 17,500 students enrolled at the University of Chicago this past fall. Eight hundred and twenty eight of that group, just 4.7% of its total population, are Black, including Claire Shackleford.

The 21-year-old detailed an experience where required reading lists lean heavily into works by white male authors. There are fewer professors of color, so students instead befriend Black cafeteria workers or custodians for support. It’s common, she said, to be the only Black student in a classroom.

“The burden of being a student of color at a predominantly white institution is that you’re often expected to speak on behalf of your race,” she said.

In three Midwestern cities, there are broad disparities in who is going where in higher education — and who is going anywhere at all. Black Americans in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as the nation, remain underrepresented at our best colleges and overrepresented at some of our worst.

Take Cleveland, for example, where nearly half of city residents are Black. Case Western Reserve University, the city’s most selective college, reported only 6% of its population was made up of Black students in 2018, a number that’s barely budged since 2000. Citing availability issues, Case Western declined to make a representative available for an interview for this story.

The record of nearby public universities doesn’t fare much better — just 8% at Kent State and nearly 15% at Cleveland State in 2018.

The story is similar in Detroit, where nearly 80% of its residents are Black, but Black students made up just 15% of Wayne State University’s population three years ago and just 11% at the University of Detroit Mercy. Roughly a third of Chicago’s residents are Black, but Black students made up just 6.9% of Loyola University Chicago’s population that same year.

Students at selective institutions have higher chances of graduating. Those campuses also reportedly spend about three times more per student on instructional and academic support compared with open-access schools, the institutions where students of color enroll at much greater rates. Those places, including community colleges, historically receive less funding and have fewer resources.

Black students also are overrepresented at for-profit colleges — where the rates of debt tend to run high and the graduation rates tend to skew low — by more than 12 percentage points in Ohio and more than 15 percentage points in Michigan, according to one recent estimate.

And some of the most problematic outcomes are linked to students at those institutions. Many have a long history of predatory practices. Students there tend to graduate with more debt and are more likely to go into default than their peers who enroll elsewhere.

What this all adds up to is stubborn gaps in who’s getting a degree. In each of the counties that house Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, the rates of white people with bachelor’s degrees are more than double the number of Black Americans with those same credentials.

“These systems were created to keep people of color out, so I think we have to shift our paradigm,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, the executive director of the Michigan College Access Network. “We think about it as like the system is failing, when actually the system is really, really successful because it was designed to keep these people out. And it’s keeping them out.”

He added, “We have to do systems-level change at the K-12 level and definitely at the higher ed level in order to see these problems be fixed.”

Far-Reaching Impacts

These stark enrollment and attainment gaps have far-reaching impacts. Earning a bachelor’s degree, of course, affects one’s personal earning potential, but research also shows having higher levels of education creates healthier and more engaged citizens.

“Education in the African American community changes generations,” said Laura Williams, president of the Cleveland Council of Black Colleges Alumni Association. “It is a game changer for individuals. It is a game changer for families.”

It’s also vital for the economic health of a region. A 2015 report from The Brookings Institution found that a bachelor’s degree holder contributed more than $278,000 in lifetime direct spending to a local economy compared with a high school graduate.

And those economies are changing, placing more emphasis on earning higher credentials. By 2050, the bulk of residents in Chicago are forecast to be people of color. There are expected to be fewer jobs in manufacturing and transportation, but increased opportunities in industries such as finance, real estate and other professional/technical services.

Michigan is pushing for 60% of its residents to have a postsecondary credential by 2030. Sixty-five percent of Ohioians are expected to need either a two- or four-year degree or “marketable skill” by 2025.

In Cleveland, high school senior Nia Badley is researching colleges right now. She plans to major in biomedical engineering, a sector that’s expected to see growth over the next few years. She’s looking at the demographic makeup of each campus on her short list.

“I want to understand the college and I want the college to understand me, all at the same time,” she said.

She’s also pushing for a full ride. Higher education is expensive. A 2019 report from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, reinforced a link between student debt and the racial wealth gap, finding that Black families “rely more heavily on student debt, and on riskier forms of student debt, than white families do.”

Black Americans who take on student loans are also more likely to “never” be able to repay that debt, according to a 2020 report from the JP Morgan Chase Institute. Those findings noted that this is due in part to Black borrowers making about 22% less than their white counterparts, as well as being less likely to receive financial help from family members or friends to pay for their education.

Overall, Badley said she feels lucky to attend a high school with a strong college-going culture. She feels supported. But she knows that not all students have that experience.

Systematic Disadvantages

For those who don’t, Cleveland resident Jowan Smith helps families fill in the gaps through her grassroots group Getting Our Babies to College 101. She said she finds that many institutions, especially the top ones, seem to have requirements in place that can diminish Black students’ applications from the beginning.

High school students might not be able to fulfill community service hours because they’re working, or they may be at a lower-performing high school without resources. Research shows students of color have fewer opportunities for advanced classes or gifted programs.

“When they look at the test scores of our average students, they don’t see success,” Smith said. “They don’t even give them a chance to come and try and grow as a student.”

According to The Education Trust’s Wil Del Pilar, if institutions’ admissions offices are placing a higher priority on opportunities that Black students have less access to, they’re systematically disadvantaging them.

“That is why students end up at community college or for-profit institutions, because we’ve effectively shut the doors to our best and best-funded institutions to the majority of those students,” the vice president of higher education at the national nonprofit educational advocacy group said.

Black students, along with Hispanic students, are reportedly three times more likely than their white peers to enroll at a for-profit college. A Bryant and Stratton outpost in Cleveland, a barber college 30 minutes outside of Chicago and a beauty school in Detroit each reported Black people made up at least 80% of their total enrollment in 2018.

“I think they reach a population that feels like they cannot access college, that college isn’t for them, by telling them this is different, this is better, this is newer,” said Fewins-Bliss in Michigan.

And while not all jobs require a four-year degree, MCAN’s Fewins-Bliss said that some credentials issued by for-profits aren’t actually industry recognized.

“It’s not stackable, so you can’t take it to the institution down the road and stack credits on top of that to get an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “So students get done and they’ve paid $30,000 for a two-year certificate that doesn’t get them anywhere.”

When it comes to closing the overall gaps, some work is being done on these fronts. College scholarship opportunities linked to cities’ K-12 systems have been established, including Cleveland’s Say Yes to Education, the Detroit Promise and the STAR scholarship in Chicago.

Michigan’s Wayne State University touted an uptick in enrollment for first-time Black college students this past fall. The University of Chicago, which didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, reported that the freshman class of 2024 is “most diverse student body and freshman class” in its history, according to the university’s independent student newspaper. The publication added the university has used similar language to describe other classes before.

But for sustainable progress to be made, Ed Trust’s Del Pilar recommends more accountability fall on states and cities, along with giving more thought to funding formulas.

“Truthfully, the way we should be funding these institutions should be flipped,” he said. “We provide the most resources in higher education to the students with the most advantage, and we provide the least resources in higher education for those students who are most disadvantaged.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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