Feeling a sense of belonging is thought to help college students be more engaged – and, ultimately, stay enrolled and graduate.

But nearly one in five Black college students attending some of Ohio’s predominantly white higher education institutions said they don’t feel that way, a new survey shows. About half reported feeling as though they do belong, and about a third of respondents indicated they were unsure, per the report.

These are just some of the findings highlighted in a new report from the Ohio Students Association. The grassroots advocacy group released its first Ohio Black Student Equity Report Thursday, Aug. 24. 

Results differ at predominantly white colleges and HBCUs

When presented with the statement “I believe that the university administration at my institution values Black students,” the results from those institutions with traditionally higher populations of white students – commonly referred to as predominantly white institutions or PWIs – were striking.

Sixty-seven percent of Black students at PWIs either disagreed with that sentiment or were unsure. And almost half of Black respondents at those PWIs indicated their “racial identity led to added stress,” the report highlighted. 

Tamyra Otkins, a student at Case Western Reserve University, spoke at a press conference coinciding with the report’s release. 

The junior said the population of Black students at the university “doesn’t reflect the community as much as it could.” CWRU sits in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland, a city where nearly half of the residents are Black. About 7%  – nearly 850 – of the total student population at CWRU last fall were Black/African American. 

“It can be isolating, not seeing much of yourself in the university, which makes it easy to feel like your voice is not strong enough in classrooms, let alone in the university,” Otkins said. 

It’s a different story at the state’s two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Nearly three-quarters of respondents who attend these colleges indicated they feel a sense of belonging.

Behind the data

Black students, the writers note, aren’t a monolith. But with nearly 400 Black students across a dozen public and private campuses responding, “this paper can tell us more about various Black students’ experiences in Ohio than any other report,” they added. 

“Our universities are microcosms of our communities,” Prentiss Haney, executive director of the Ohio Student Association, said during the press conference.

The work was co-produced by two education scholars from the University of Cincinnati and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was funded by the Joyce Foundation. (The Joyce Foundation also supports Signal Cleveland’s higher education reporting in partnership with the national nonprofit news organization Open Campus.)

Officials said students organized focus groups early in 2022 to inform the design of the survey. It was then distributed and collected during the 2022-2023 academic year. 

In addition to looking at belonging and inclusion, students were also surveyed about a wide variety of other areas, such as campus policing, student debt, and state policies focused on higher education. 

Recommendations for the future

The group’s 28-page report also laid out these explicit recommendations: 

  • Develop a statewide collaborative for institutions of higher education 
  • Build a system of accountability for campus policing
  • Ensure all Ohioans have access to and complete higher education
  • Protect Black students from what they called “harmful anti-CRT(critical race theory) / anti-DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) legislation” 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.