The Systemic Racism of Higher Education


In October of 2015, black students at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) launched a protest against racism on campus. They were responding to two things in particular. First, to the all-too regular incidences of racial insensitivity they faced at school. Second, to the national Movement for Black Lives, birthed a mere hundred miles away after the killing of Michael Brown. The Mizzou protests started as most college protests do, with a small and ultimately ignored group of students marching through campus, loudly expressing their grievances, hoping someone might listen. But in a little over a month, the protests culminating in the Mizzou football team’s refusal to practice or play in games had turned a Midwestern college town into the epicenter of racial tension in America. The protests also spurred individual but connected anti-racism movements at colleges throughout the country, with students at Yale, UNC, UC Berkeley, Amherst, and many more schools calling for solidarity with Mizzou and an end to racism on their own campuses.

But over the course of the next several months, the legitimacy of the protests was questioned. Were the incidents at Mizzou, Yale, and other universities in response to a real grievance? Or were they symptomatic of a “coddled” generation, taught to perceive the slightest cultural insensitivity as racist threat? Eventually, these questions began to cast a pall over the black student movement of 2015, and the media decidedly turned against the protests. But the media narrative belies an undeniable fact: Black students were fighting an unjust status quo. They were fighting to change the deep, systemic racism of American higher education.


An oft-ignored reality underlies American higher education; it’s that “college” does not mean the same thing for everyone. For many, college is not an idyllic, escapist four years away from the real world. Rather, it’s an online degree through a for-profit university or night classes at a local community college. The systemic racism of higher education, the racism students at Mizzou were responding to, starts before a black student even steps foot on a college campus. It starts with the type of institution black students have access to.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), black and white college enrollment rates are within 5% of each other as of 2014 (63% black, 68% white).[1] That gap has closed significantly since 1995, when black students trailed white students by nearly 13%. But the black students who are now going to college are not, for the most part, attending Mizzou, Yale, or other prestigious four-year universities that receive media attention for their roiling protests. Instead, 68% of the black college enrollment increase from 1995 to 2013 is attributable to black students who attend community colleges or for-profit universities.[2] Conversely, 82% of new white college enrollments during this period went to the 468 most selective universities in the country, all of which are nonprofit or public four-year schools.[3] Whereas white students easily make up the vast majority of students attending four-year public and nonprofit universities, people of color make up half of all community college students and majority of all for-profit students.[4] Most importantly, of the 100 “very high activity” American research universities, most of them saw their black student enrollment shrink from 1994 to 2013.[5]

Why does this matter? Because almost all of the country’s most prestigious universities are still predominantly white and less black than they were 25 years ago. At least some of this has to do with the roll-back of affirmative action policies in the 90s and early 2000s, as well as the growth of for-profit universities as flexible (if equally expensive) alternatives to traditional four-year and two-year colleges.[6] But the fact that a shrinking amount of black students attend highly ranked PWIs does not necessarily mean the campus environments at these schools are racist. Surely universities bastions of liberalism and inclusive thought would shelter black students, and all students of color, from any sort of real racist experience.

If only. Racism at PWIs is difficult to discuss because its effect is rarely overt. Most students fortunately do not have the experience of Payton Head, the Mizzou student body President who was called the n-word by a group of white students on campus (which is not to say that these experiences don’t abound).[7] There is, however, non-anecdotal proof that systemic racism exists at America’s top universities. At four-year public institutions (i.e. traditional state universities such as Mizzou), the six-year graduation rate for white students is 60%. For black students, it’s 40%. At four-year non-profit institutions (i.e. private universities such as Yale), the six-year graduation rate for white students is 68%; it’s 43% for black students.[8] The largest discrepancies are at highly selective but not the most selective schools. For four-year non-profits that accept between 25% and 49.9% of their students, white students graduate at a clip of 81%, black students at a mere 51%.[9] For four-year public schools of this caliber, those percentages are at 69.3% and 44%, respectively.[10]

Many argue that the reason for such discrepancies is that black students get preferential admission into universities, even if they are academically unqualified, leading to worse performance in college. But the last 20 years have seen the death of state-sanctioned affirmative action, and six-year graduation rate discrepancies between black and white students have increased during this time. Further, in their seminal book The Shape of the River, economists William Bowen and Derek Bok show that, after controlling for academic indicators including high school GPA, standardized test scores, and socioeconomic status, as well as gender, school selectivity, and field of study, black students still fare worse than white students at PWIs.[11]

Let’s not be afraid to say it. Lower performance by black students at top universities is the product of systemic racism. It’s the product of a failed or non-existent effort by PWIs to create an environment in which black students can succeed.

But if black students are not outwardly harassed by their fellow students, what is meant by systemic racism? And what does it mean “to create an environment in which black students can succeed”?

The question has been studied extensively in higher education academia. For the last three decades of the 20th century, sociologist Vincent Tinto’s theory of student integration dominated education circles.[12] It argued that “students must go through a process of separation from their precollege communities, navigate a period of transition into college life, and integrate into the academic and social subsystems of their campuses to maximize their likelihood of success.” But Tinto’s ideas of integration conflict with the experience of culturally diverse students. If a college’s “academic and social subsystems” don’t reflect a student’s cultural background, that student will have to minimize or entirely disregard their identity to fit in. Further, researchers have shown that “integrating” is psychologically more difficult and harmful for racial minority groups than it is for racial majority groups, and that Tinto’s theory implies an inherent disadvantage for, say, black students trying to integrate into the culture of PWIs when compared to white students trying to do the same.

To satisfy this critique, higher education scholars now view college success through a culturally conscious lens. Many argue that encouraging students to engage with their cultures, and validating all students’ cultural backgrounds through active, culturally relevant programming is key to the success of students of color. Recent models put the onus on colleges to provide these culturally relevant resources to students of color so that they can succeed. For example, Samuel Museus’ Culturally Engaging Campus Environment (CECE) model argues that “undergraduates’ access to culturally engaging campus environments is associated with higher levels of sense of belonging and, in turn, greater likelihood of success in higher education.”[13] The model includes nine elements of culturally engaging campus environments that allow students of color to feel like they belong. The first five fit into the subcategory of “cultural relevance,” which “refers to the degree to which students’ campus environments are relevant to their cultural backgrounds.” The next four are about “cultural responsiveness,” or the “extent to which campus programs and practices effectively respond to the needs of culturally diverse populations.” Museus goes on to note various ways faculty members and academic advisors can implement the CECE model by “integrating lessons on diverse histories from the perspectives of indigenous and immigrant communities” or trying to “understand how students’ cultural backgrounds, family relationships, and community obligations might be influencing their experiences and success in college.”

Models like the CECE model are reflective of black students’ experience at PWIs. Museus’ own study testing his model a survey of three universities (one four-year PWI and two two-year community colleges) shows that, of the model’s nine elements of culturally engaged campuses, eight show positive correlations with sense of belonging, five of which are statistically significant. Various studies have suggested similar conclusions. A study by Dr. Michelle Denise Gilliard in 1996 suggests that, in a survey of black and white students at six Midwestern PWIs, “African American students look to college administrators to define the institution’s racial climate, and that student perceptions of a racially inhospitable environment may negatively impact the success of all students.”[14] It specifically notes “African American students’ focus on participation in minority-focused support services (e.g., Black Student Union) contributes to their overall involvement within the college community.” Professors Douglas Guiffrida and Kathryn Douthit review higher education literature that shows how experiences with faculty, membership in black student organizations, and relationships with family and friends back home significantly impact black students’ retention, persistence, and success at PWIs.[15] They conclude that “school and college counselors who understand the sociocultural challenges that black college students face in their transitions to PWIs can provide an invaluable means of support and advocacy for these students to facilitate their academic success.”

Higher education academics are right to be concerned with cultural insensitive and racially inhospitable campus environments considering the ample evidence that these environments significantly impact a black student’s chance for success. And because the gap between black and white student success at PWIs remains large, it’s inarguable that PWIs are failing to provide adequate culturally-conscious resources and support to black students in order for them to succeed.

Racism does exist at PWIs. Not always through overt racial name-calling or intimidation, but through a lack of cultural consciousness that pervades every aspect of the university. College administrations fail to provide the money and resources for culturally-conscious organizations and programming; faculties fail to hire enough black professors or adequately account for cultural differences of black students; and the ratio of black to white students remains low, while many students continue to evince cultural ignorance or inhospitality.


The Mizzou protests were seemingly sparked by a single incident. Payton Head, president of Mizzou’s student government, was repeatedly called the n-word one night on campus. Similarly, the infamous Yale protests were caused, it was told, by a single email, sent by Professor Erika Christakis regarding Halloween costumes. It would seem that most college protests at least the ones that receive media attention start like this, with one unfortunate incident provoking heated campus activism. But this characterization, promulgated by the media, is inaccurate. It’s premised on the falsehood that colleges like Yale and Mizzou are entirely harmonious, non-racist spaces until a random incident creates tension. This ignores the quotidian racism many black students are forced to live with at PWIs.

If we are unable to stomach singular instances of racism, we cannot ignore the systemic racism they represent. Yes, Payton Head was called the n-word, and this did partially instigate the Mizzou protests. But protesters have made it clear that racism was a regular part of their college experience, that it was something they lived with consistently, and that this was what the protests were trying to address.[16] At Yale, student activists made the same distinction; Professor Christakis’ email was only the last straw of cultural insensitivity, an incident that was unacceptable because of its normalcy.[17] Higher education academics have shown that this critique is real and proven; their research suggests that closing the black-white graduation gap is about making campuses culturally engaging and sensitive to non-white students. PWIs’ failure to do so means one thing: the accepted and continued systemic racism of American higher education.


[1] “Percentage of recent high school completers enrolled in 2- and 4-year colleges, by race/ethnicity: 1960 through 2014.” National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[2] Iloh, Constance, and Ivory A. Toldson. “Black Students in 21st Century Higher Education: A Closer Look at For-Profit and Community Colleges (Editor’s Commentary).” The Journal of Negro Education 82, no. 3 (2013): 205. doi:10.7709/jnegroeducation.82.3.0205.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Characteristics of Postsecondary Students.” National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[5] McGill, Andrew. “The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities.” The Atlantic. November 23, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[6] “How Minorities Have Fared in States With Affirmative Action Bans.” The New York Times. June 23, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[7] “Campus Racial Incidents.” Journal of Higher Black Education. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[8] “Graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, time to completion, sex, control of institution, and acceptance rate: Selected cohort entry years, 1996 through 2007.” National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Guiffrida, Douglas, and Kathryn Douthit. “The Black Student Experience at Predominantly White Colleges: Implications for School and College Counselors.” Journal of Counseling and Development, Summer 2010.
[12] Museus, Samuel D., Varaxy Yi, and Natasha Saelua. “The Impact of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on Sense of Belonging.” The Review of Higher Education 40, no. 2 (2017): 187-215. doi:10.1353/rhe.2017.0001.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Gilliard, Michelle Denise. “Racial climate and institutional support factors affecting success in predominantly white institutions: an examination of African American and white student experiences.” PhD diss., 1996.
[15] Guiffrida, Douglas, and Kathryn Douthit. “The Black Student Experience at Predominantly White Colleges: Implications for School and College Counselors.” Journal of Counseling and Development, Summer 2010.
[16] Naskidashvili, Nana. “Students march through MU Student Center in protest of racial injustice.” Columbia Missourian. October 1, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2017.
[17] Wang, Victor, and Joey Ye. “Hundreds discuss race at forum.” Yale Daily News. November 5, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2017.



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