By Mallika Mitra
August 25, 2020
Nicolas Ortega

When Mariama Lemon sat down with her mom and sisters to decide where she would attend college in the fall, she didn’t think about cost, her potential political science major or her hope to keep dancing. Those were all factors she’d considered when she started applying months before.

But for the big decision, she had one main question: What would life be like for her as a Black woman on campus?

“The cost for a student of color like myself to go to a predominantly white institution is definitely more than just financial,” says Lemon, 18 from the Bronx. “You experience overt racism on top of the institutional racism. These spaces weren’t built for students that look like me.”

As antiracist protests in the wake of high-profile police killings of Black people erupted in May, schools across the country were quick to come out with statements condemning systematic racism. But students want more.

At North Carolina State University, they called for the university to cut its current ties with the Raleigh Police Department. At Western Michigan University, they’re asking for a class for all students on systemic racism. At the University of Massachusetts, they want a racial justice hearing board to help with communications between students and administrators.

But for high school students of color who aren’t yet on campus, it can be difficult to assess what their life would be like at different colleges. Like with any student, choosing a college and how to pay for it is a huge financial decision. But students of color face unique barriers. For one, the financial element is often heightened. Black and Hispanic students, for example, graduate at lower rates than their white peers, meaning they’re more at risk to default on student loans later on.

Plus, students of color need to include an extra factor in the calculation of where to attend: the racial climate on campus.

Lemon had to do a lot of work to choose a school that could feel like home. She researched schools’ diversity initiatives, and how long inclusion programs had been in place (if they existed at all). She spoke to both students of color and white students about how race is discussed in the classroom. She looked into how students were treated when campuses were forced to close due to the pandemic. In the end, she chose Colgate University.

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Colgate offered her a full-tuition scholarship from the college’s Office of Undergraduate Studies (OUS). It comes with access to individualized support, including a summer institute before the first year, then mentorship and career planning throughout college. Older scholars in the program told her they felt like “OUS was their family,” she says. That detail was key, as Lemon was looking for a similar support system as she had being an Oliver Scholar in high school — a program for high-achieving Black and Latino students from underserved New York City communities. Another factor in her decision was that Colgate rescinded an offer to a student who had posted a racist TikTok video.

Lemon isn’t expecting a perfect experience at the predominantly white institution (Colgate only has about 14% Black and Hispanic undergrad students). While it’s great that the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing people to have conversations about race on campus, the momentum needs to keep up, she says.

“I wanted to go to an institution that had policies and programming in place,” Lemon says. “They didn’t have to be perfect, but I needed to see a decent effort that seemed authentic.”

And colleges should provide prospective students with information about those programs and policies, says Marie Bigham, a longtime college admissions professional and founder of ACCEPT, which is focused on antiracism, equity and justice in college admissions.

“This quality in a college is just as valid as anything else — as having a major, as having a football team,” Bigham says. “As a person of color, this is a quality of life issue.”

That’s why it’s important to get information about how much a college supports its minority students and promotes antiracism before picking a school. Here’s how.

Question the messaging

Students of color and their families need to look beyond a college’s statements about their antiracist values and ask what actions they’ve actually taken, says Shaun Harper, professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center.

He says all Black students and their families should ask, “Do Black lives indeed matter on this campus?”

“Of course, every administrator is going to say ‘yes’ but go a step further,” Harper says. Ask, “How do you demonstrate that Black lives matter? In what ways do you consistently confirm to Black students that their lives indeed matter here?”

When speaking to faculty, career services or other staff you might interact with on campus, you don’t necessarily want to start with a big question like, “how are you dealing with racism on campus?” Instead, ask more specific questions that are personal to you, Bigham says. If you’re a political science major, for example, ask how political discord shows up on campus, including whether or not protests happen.

Another way to get past the opaqueness of a school’s messaging? Look at what the students are writing. Student publications are one of the best ways to get insights into a college’s culture, Bigham says. (At Colgate University, for example, student editors in June wrote “we cannot disentangle the racist reality of America from the racist reality of our own university” and vowed to better use their publication’s platform to tell the community’s stories, including those regarding racism).

“It’s the voice of the students and it tells students what that day-to-day life is like,” Bigham says. Student journalists are also a good resource for understanding how students — especially marginalized students — were treated when campuses closed in the spring.

Or ask students directly, says Savannah Johnson, a junior at Salisbury University where she is the public relations officer for both the student chapter of the NAACP and Black Student Union, as well as vice president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. The administration’s perspective can differ from students’ when racist events occur, like when racist vandalism was found at her school last year. So search for what students are saying on social media and reach out to them.

“I know it may seem a little awkward at first,” Johnson, 20, says. But, “student leaders would definitely be open. They want to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you get there.”

Manu Onteeru, 18 and an Indian student from a Virginia high school that was mostly attended by students of color, recommends reaching out to several students instead of just one or two, and asking about their personal experiences instead of asking them to speak to the culture overall.

“I found it’s kind of hard to get a really, really complete picture from one person,” says Onteeru, who is attending Dartmouth in the fall, where 64% of the U.S.-based students in the class of 2023 are white.

The goal is to make sure a college isn’t simply claiming to be antiracist without taking any concrete actions to move in that direction, says Lawrence Alexander, the lead search consultant for the diversity, equity and inclusion practice at Carney Sandoe & Associates, which recruits teachers and administrators for schools.

“Antiracist is an adjective,” Alexander says. “It’s not an identity, or a pass schools get by putting out a public statement.”

Find statistics

Although a lot of these conversations may be qualitative, there are plenty of specific numbers you can look for to get a better sense of a college’s antiracist practices. A basic example: the diversity breakdown of the student body. (Make sure to ask about Black, Indigenous and people of color separate from international students as the two can sometimes be counted together, Alexander says.)

Look at the breakdown of the faculty, too. But don’t just ask how many Black faculty members there are in each department, ask how many are full-time, Harper says.

“Colleges play these games where they’ll include adjunct professors or instructors who students might not see in their everyday experiences on campuses,” Harper adds.

For Laura Gonzalez, 18, seeing diversity in leadership at Wellesley College was a big factor in her choosing to attend in the fall. She notes four women of color in top leadership roles, including the presidency.

“Seeing women of color as the leaders and representatives of my school felt empowering,” Gonzalez says.

The ways that a college supports students of color from enrollment to graduation is a practical demonstration that they care — two statistics to measure that are average indebtedness and graduation rates for students of color, Alexander says. Students of color, for example, are disproportionately burdened by student debt, particularly Black students, who are more likely to borrow, borrow more and struggle with repayment than other student groups. So you want to look for colleges where the gap between these statistics for students of color and white students is as small as possible.

Don’t just stick with admissions offices. The career center can give you some insight into the rate of job placements for students of color after graduation. And the office of academic advising can give you information on whether students have been able to switch majors, Alexander says. They can answer questions like, “If I’m a student of color who wants to major in engineering, has there been a history of professors discouraging me from doing that despite my propensity for it?”

You also don’t need to rely on colleges to share all these numbers. There is always institutional research being done on admissions, financial aid, career centers and more, so see if you can find reports yourself, Alexander says.

One example of an outside source: a “report card” Harper co-authored on public four-year colleges in the country. It awards letter grades to universities based on various racial equity metrics, like Black student-to-faculty ratio. Another source is collegeresults.org, where you can look up graduation rates by race and compare colleges.

Assess the community and the curriculum

How representative is an institution of the region around it or the state it’s in?

“Lack of representation of the population is a big red flag to me,” Bigham says. This is especially true for flagship universities — usually the best-known in the state — because they tend to have resources and funding, she adds. (The Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on closing opportunity gaps in the education system, recently found that Black and Latino students are underrepresented at the overwhelming majority of the most selective public colleges in the U.S. — including all 50 of the flagships.)

Especially with the strained state of the relationship between the police and people of color in the U.S., students need to ask about partnerships between the local law enforcement and the school. The same goes for security on the campuses.

If you go to “a progressive school in a conservative community,” the campus itself may be welcoming, but the community may not, Alexander says.

When it comes to assessing the curriculum, students should also be aware of whether their cultural history will be incorporated into courses.

For example, if a Black student asks about whether they’ll be able to learn about their ancestors’ history and culture, a department may immediately note its African American studies department, Harper says.

“Those are obviously important departments and programs, but I think that Black families and prospective students should ask, ‘Okay but where else will my student learn about Blackness in the curriculum?’,” he adds. “’English? Sociology? Engineering?’”

He says that over his 17-year faculty career, Black students have told him that they got to school and realized if they weren’t majoring in African American studies, they probably weren’t going to learn about Black culture and history at school.

Harper recommends speaking to department heads, professors, current Black students and alumni to get a sense of how culturally inclusive the curriculum is.

Fathima Rifkey, a senior at Salisbury University in Maryland and a first-generation student whose parents are from Sri Lanka, says while a school might bring diverse speakers and performers to campus, diversity and inclusion should be ingrained in every aspect of a school, including the curriculum. And education shouldn’t deny historical events, but instead be constantly calling itself out, she says, adding that racist events in the country’s history shouldn’t be glossed over, but highlighted and discussed.

“If you’re not finding an education like that, it’s probably not truly an inclusive place to be at,” Rifkey says.

These won’t always be easy questions to ask. But you’ll be able to make a better decision about where to attend if you push until you get concrete answers.

“Keep asking questions,” Bigham says. “Just keep pushing and — to say in the least delicate way possible — keep your bullshit radar high.”

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