Auburn: The Making of a National Champion


December 14, 2015

By Jack Esslinger

What’s going on at Auburn? For a university that is a perennial football powerhouse in the vaunted SEC, they have a starkly different track record when it comes to working class student access and minority student completion. Not only is Auburn an engine of inequality ranking among the bottom five percent of colleges nationwide in Pell Grant student enrollment, it also finds itself on a short list of colleges that saw the worst growth in graduation gaps between minority students and their white peers over the past decade.


Auburn Football
Auburn Media File from Track’Em Tigers Blog


That’s what we uncovered in analyzing U.S. Education Department Pell Grant data in conjunction with Education Trust’s recent report that separately found many colleges are failing to close graduation gaps between white and disadvantaged minority students. In fact, many like Auburn are seeing their graduation gaps widen by significant margins. But what makes these findings even more concerning is our research that finds some of those graduation-gap-growing colleges have also gotten worse in their enrollment of low- and middle-income students. We submit these new findings give further credence to our hypothesis that racial unrest on college campuses – like those evidenced by the #BlackonCampus movement – may in part be a manifestation of frustrations associated with the slow rate of progress in racial equity in access and graduation on campuses around the country.


Related: What are the #BlackonCampus Protests Really About? 


Ed Trust’s report narrowed in on 255 public universities that had improved their graduation rates from 2003 to 2013 and that had significant minority student populations. During this ten-year period and at these schools, the minority graduation rate increases outpaced that of white students. The caveat? That the minority student’s edge was by less than a SINGLE percentage point. For a decade’s worth of time that number should be to all extremely underwhelming especially considering the disparity and disadvantages minority students faced upon entry.

Ed Trust identified a group of 17 schools – the worst of the worst – that had declining graduation rates for students of color and increased the campus graduation gap as compared against white students. What we found is that on top of these growing graduation gaps, some of these institutions also experienced decreases or negligible growth in their enrollment of low- and middle- class students. In other words, these colleges are going backwards on socioeconomic mobility and racial equality.


Auburn Chart 1

Auburn Chart 2


Of the 17 four-year public institutions Ed Trust cites as having increasing graduation gaps, three – the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Boise State University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock – saw decreases in the percentages of Pell Grant recipients (a key indicator of the enrollment of working class and poor students) among freshmen. Nationally, the average public four-year college saw a near 10 percentage point increase in Pell Grant student enrollment due to growing income inequality and expanded eligibility.

Auburn University saw a negligible +2 percentage point increase in their Pell Grant recipient enrollment over the relevant ten-year span, but their overall paltry 13 percent level of Pell Grant recipient enrollment still leaves them dead last in this already bad group and also in the bottom 5 percent of colleges nationwide in terms of socioeconomic diversity. Maybe Auburn should redirect some of the annual $4.4 million it collects in student fees toward worthwhile causes like increasing socioeconomic diversity and improving minority student outcomes instead of using those funds to finance discount football tickets.

The bigger story here than this handful of spotlighted schools is that the progression towards eliminating the graduation gap and increasing enrollment of low- and middle-income students at selective schools is neither happening adequately nor quickly enough. While there is some positive movement in terms of increases in overall graduation rates, a less than 1 percentage point closing of the graduation gap between white and minority students over a decade’s worth of time is unequivocally unacceptable. If we likened these underwhelming gains to the economy over the same timespan the outcry would be palpable.

This is why the #BlackOnCampus movement’s message resonates so strongly. We believe it reflects a conglomeration of frustrations over the lack of serious and meaningful strides towards attaining greater equity for all students on campus. Students and other activists that are part of the movement, along with others akin to them, desire institutional changes that will provide minority students and low-income students the same chance at success that their more advantaged counterparts enjoy. It is not enough for universities to make small, sluggish, and symbolic changes; they must continue to be pressed to make “a meaningful commitment to diversity” in student enrollment, services, and success. That’s going to take leadership and resources.

Auburn, lead the way. Be a national champion.