What are the #BlackonCampus Protests Really About?


November 18, 2015

By Jack Esslinger

Since the protests at Mizzou, students at over 100 colleges have joined the still nascent #BlackonCampus movement, demanding changes in areas like building names, faculty diversity, and resignations of campus officials and student leaders. In turn they’ve been criticized as engaging in “infantile behavior” by the likes of Ben Carson, called “cowardly, liberal, lazy douchebags” by RedState, and dismissed as “still fresh from puberty” by the New York Post.


IowaBlackFrom Inside Higher Ed


Consider though that maybe the students’ demands are masking or are the manifestation of a deeper harm related to their unequal chances of success on campus. While the fulfillment of these initial demands may represent an important first step in easing racial tensions and encouraging a more pluralistic campus, if universities don’t want the protests to continue or flare up again, they need to strive for deeper, more systematic changes to institutional practices and structures that undermine the presence and academic achievement of minority students from various backgrounds.

Related: Institutional Racism at Mizzou

At the University of Kansas (KU), for example, students have been demanding the resignations of several top student government members due to the leadership’s perceived lack of concern for, acknowledgement of, and collaboration with those protesting various racial issues on campus. An alumnus has started a hunger strike. But on a deeper level beyond the high profile demands, the KU students are also expressing frustration at the slow rate of progress in racial equity in access and graduation.

According to data submitted by KU to the federal government, KU has a series of egregious access and achievement gaps between white and various minority student groups – worse than those at peer colleges with similar admissions standards. KU’s on-time graduation gap between white and black students favors white students by 23.1 percentage points. Among fifteen other similar institutions with similar admission standards, KU has the worst black-white graduation gap of the bunch.

KU Stats-1


Four-year graduation rate gaps are also bad between white and Latino students at KU. Here, white students have a 13.5 percentage point advantage in graduation. Again, among sixteen similar institutions, KU ranks last in terms of the white-Latino graduation gap. The white and Latino gap is even more pronounced when looking just at male students, where white students out-graduate by a 15.4 percentage point edge. Unsurprisingly, here on this particular metric again the university ranks dead last among peer institutions.

KU Stats-2


With barely 1 in 5 minority students graduating in four years, it’s no wonder that KU students are restless.


Related: WHAAAATT??? LeBron, Please Take a Look at the College Completion Rates for Black Students at the University of Akron


Same Story at Other Colleges

Racial inequities on campus are hardly unique to KU. And while KU is one of the more extreme offenders of failing its minority students, other colleges where protests have broken out also have similar disparities. At Claremont McKenna College in California, where a racially-fueled protest last week led to the resignation of the university’s Dean of Students, you can once again see startling graduation gaps between white and minority students. At Claremont McKenna, the four-year graduation rate gap between white and black students disproportionately favors whites by a staggering 31.6 percentage points.

Take a look at Ithaca College in New York State, another campus that has recently seen a race-based student protest. Here too, you can see a large four-year graduation rate gap between white and black students: 14.8 percentage points. When comparing just male students, the gap grows to 18.2 percentage points. On top of these completion gaps, Ithaca University also does a poor job on the access front: only 4.1% of its undergraduate students are black, which is roughly one-fifth of its state population of black high school graduates (19.2 percent) and one-quarter of the national population of black high school graduates (16.1 percent).

These graduation gaps at KU, Claremont McKenna, and Ithaca are a microcosm of a systemic problem that has plagued four-year U.S. colleges as well as the country as a whole. Nationwide, we see big inequities in students’ chances for graduation success.  And don’t go blaming the students. Time and again, we see colleges with similar students, similar admissions standards, and similar costs demonstrating wildly different levels of success.

While colleges and universities have started to feel pressure from the Obama administration and States to focus on college access and success, student restlessness is starting to boil over. The racial insensitivity and acrimony we’re seeing reported on television and in the papers are a manifestation of deeper, institutional racism on campus. Their demands may not state it explicitly yet, but student desire for rapid change reflects deeper tensions underlying a lack of meaningful diversity on campus.

Related: Diversity Beyond Affirmative Action

Colleges and universities better be listening, looking within – and changing their ways. This issue and unrest are here to stay.


Jack Esslinger is a research and policy intern at Education Reform Now.