De Facto Segregation in Virginia Higher Ed

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

April 12, 2021

A new issue brief by Education Reform Now highlights the extent to which Virginia’s leading public and private colleges are choosing to under enroll students from working class, low-income, and racial minority backgrounds.

Of the 15 worst public colleges and universities in America on working class and low-income student enrollment, one-third are located in Virginia.

The University of Virginia, The College of William & Mary, James Madison University, Christopher Newport University, and Virginia Military Institute all not only rank especially poorly among all colleges nationwide in enrolling talented students from working-class and low-income backgrounds, they also all significantly underperform as compared to peer institutions with similar admissions standards.

Compare the University of Virginia (UVa) with peer institution the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), for example. UVa and UNC enroll first-year student classes with similar median high school student GPA levels and similar median SAT and ACT scores. Yet UVa enrolls roughly half the percentage of Pell Grant recipients as UNC, fewer racial minorities, and charges families substantially more in tuition and fees. And UVa has a $10 billion endowment whereas UNC’s is $6.5 billion.

Prestigious and extremely low-access four-year colleges, as Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale has said, are “the principal guarantors of class and race-based inequities. In fact, they and our higher ed system overall are more part of the problem than the solution.”

Our study finds that while 34% of Virginia 18-24-year-olds are Black or Hispanic, only three of Virginia’s 15 public four-year institutions of higher education enroll Black and Hispanic students at anywhere near a comparable rate—two of which are HBCUs.

The most eye-popping numbers though are seen in the non-profit private sector space. Out of over 18,000 Black students that graduate from Virginia high schools each year, the number Washington and Lee enrolls the following fall typically can be counted on one hand. In 2020, there were four. The previous year for which we have data, in 2018, there was only one. One.

Virginia State and Norfolk State each enroll a greater share of Pell Grant eligible students than any other four-year public college in the Commonwealth and together over half of all public and private college Black bachelor degree-seeking students in Virginia, and yet struggle with limited resources and consequently low graduation rates.

In 2019, Virginia State’s endowment(s) totaled approximately $70 million. Norfolk State’s was $25 million. In contrast, UVa’s endowment was more than 100 times the size of Virginia State’s, more than 400 times the size of Norfolk State’s.

As Virginia comes to further grips with historic injustices and present-day manifestations, the Commonwealth, or at least its wealthiest, largely inaccessible colleges should be thinking about reparations to HBCU institutions like Virginia State and Norfolk State. Justice doesn’t come cheap.

Federal legislation has been introduced that would challenge wealthy, especially low-access colleges to make a meaningful commitment to diversity or provide financial assistance to other schools doing the access work these colleges should be doing.

We support the concept as does the National Education Association (NEA), National Association for Educational Opportunity (NAFEO), Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), Education Trust, Third Way, and others.  Ambition without resources and accountability attached rarely generates the levels of genuine educational opportunity we all would like to see.

You can dig in to our issue brief here, but other notable notes include that, in 2019:

  • Overall, Black male and female postsecondary students in Virginia were three and four times more likely than their white peers to be enrolled in a for-profit college where prices are high and student earning outcomes are low. Hispanic high school graduates were nearly 40% more likely than their white peers to be enrolled in a community college.
  • At the University of Richmond, just 7% of students self-identified as Black, which is only marginally better than James Madison University (5%) and Virginia Tech (4.6%). Peer institutions like the University of South Carolina and Ole Miss enroll Black students at rates two to three times higher. At nearby Maryland’s non-profit private Johns Hopkins University, which has higher admissions standards than all three of those Virginia colleges, some 14% of the Class of 2024 self-identified as Black.

This Virginia issue brief is the first in a series examining the higher education landscape in the Commonwealth. Check back each day this week for more on Virginia’s commitment to diversity in higher education of lack thereof.

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