Words and Deeds: James Madison University
April 14, 2021
By Katlyn Riggins
There’s quite the gap between words and deeds at James Madison University (JMU) when it comes to matters of racial equity and social justice.
For context though, know that James Madison is a public research university situated in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It enrolls just over 21,000 undergraduates and is the 7th largest public university in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Last summer when the call for racial justice was re-energized in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, JMU’s President, Jonathan Alger, made the following statement:
I write today with a heavy heart, deeply saddened and disturbed by the recent incidents of hatred and senseless acts of violence against people of color, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, and other marginalized groups in American society…We know this grief and pain extends throughout our community, and I want you to know that on behalf of the institution and as an individual, I stand with you. We will do everything we can to help create a better tomorrow.
Not long after that statement, President Alger recommended removing the names of Confederate military leaders from three campus buildings, which ultimately happened in July. That’s a good step in supporting racial justice at JMU, but a lot more work remains.
JMU’s president said he would do “everything” he could “to help create a better tomorrow.” Well, he can get to work in having JMU evidence a meaningful commitment to racial diversity and socioeconomic mobility in terms of student enrollment at James Madison. It has a long way to go.
Black Student Enrollment Stagnant
From 2010 to 2019 Black students have never made up even 5% of the undergraduate population at JMU, even though more than 22% of 18-24-year-olds in Virginia are African-American. African-American student enrollment grew by just 1% at JMU over that same period. The growth translates to only 283 additional Black students being enrolled in 2019 as compared to 2010. The number of white students enrolled at JMU during this period increased by 849.
Source: Analysis of data from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Common Data Set 2019: James Madison University. Census data, taken from ACS: American Community Survey/ United States Census Bureau.
One of the Worst Colleges in the Country on Pell student enrollment
JMU has not done much better in enrolling students of all races from working-class and low-income families either. Its Pell Grant student enrollment has been flat for the past decade and lags far behind many other public universities in Virginia as well as nationwide.
Pell Grants typically go to students who come from families earning $60,000 per year or less. There are tens of thousands of students nationwide who are low-income and highly qualified to attend schools like JMU. One in five students who score in the 90th percentile and higher on national admissions tests like the ACT and SAT comes from a Pell Grant eligible family. But not quite 15% of JMU students in 2018 were Pell Grant recipients, less than half of the national average. James Madison ranks among the bottom 5% of all colleges nationwide when it comes to Pell Grant student enrollment. And remember it’s a public university.
While other colleges like Franklin & Marshall University have been increasing their low-income student enrollment in past years, JMU’s numbers have hardly ticked up. From 2009 to 2018, its Pell Grant student enrollment increased by only 3 percentage points. In comparison, University of Mary Washington, which started with a Pell enrollment rate similar to JMU’s 10 years ago, increased its Pell enrollment by over 9 percentage points.
*Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)
There are several Virginia public universities that significantly outperform JMU on working class and low-income student enrollment and success. The graduation rates of students with Pell Grants at George Mason University (30% Pell) and Virginia Commonwealth University (29% Pell), for instance, are not as high as James Madison’s, but they graduate many, many more students who received a Pell Grant because they enroll many more of them.
There are a dozen peer colleges with similar admissions standards as JMU, similar first year student high school GPA, similar median SAT and ACT scores that have evidenced a greater commitment to socioeconomic diversity than JMU.
Our recent report on Virginia colleges, Scratching the Surface, spotlights how James Madison compares to peer the University of Oregon. We pulled the lens out to look at the numbers over a three-year period. Again similar admissions standards in terms of median high school GPA and SAT and ACT scores, but wildly dissimilar commitments to socioeconomic mobility.
It’s nice to read and hear President Alger declare James Madison’s commitment to racial justice and diversity, but we want to see a meaningful commitment to diversity and racial justice evidenced on campus in terms of enrollment for both racial minorities and students from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
Will any elected political leader hold the James Madison’s of the world accountable for evidencing a meaningful commitment to diversity?
Words are nice, but deeds matter more.
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