Black First-Year Students at the Nation’s Leading Research Universities

Once again, this year The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has completed its survey of admissions offices at the nation’s highest-ranked research universities. For the 25th consecutive year, we have calculated and compared the percentages of Black/African-American students in this fall’s entering classes. As in the past, our survey publishes information on the total number of Black applicants at the various institutions, their acceptance rates, enrollment numbers, and yield rates (the percentage of students who eventually enroll in the colleges at which they were accepted).

For the first time in the quarter-century history of our survey, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has the highest percentage of Black students in its entering class of any of the high-ranking research universities in our survey. There are 226 Black first-year students at Vanderbilt, making up 14.1 percent of the entering class. Last year, Vanderbilt ranked in a tie for third place with an entering class that was 12.2 percent Black.

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In 2004, Blacks made up only 6.8 percent of the entering students at Columbia University in New York City. Columbia ranked 15th among the high-ranking research universities in our survey that year. Just three years later in 2007, Columbia University headed the JBHE rankings for the first time with an entering class that was 11.4 percent Black. In 2010, there were 202 Black first-year students at Columbia. They made up 14.5 percent of the incoming students. This was the highest percentage of Black students in the entering class at a leading research university in the history of the JBHE survey. For nine years in a row, Columbia had the highest percentage of Black first-year students among the 30 highest-ranking universities in the nation.  Last year, Columbia finished in a virtual dead heat for first place but was narrowly edged out by Washington University for the top spot. Again this year, Columbia finished in second place with an entering class that is 13.9 percent Black, up from 12.4 percent a year ago.

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is third in this year’s rankings. There are 234 Black students in the year’s entering class at Duke, making up 13.4 percent of the entering class. As was the case last year, the number of Black students and the percentage of Black students in the entering class are both records for the university.

Harvard University has an entering class that is 13.2 percent percent Black, which places the university fourth overall and second in the Ivy League. As was the case last year, Harvard has a record high percentage of Black students in its first-year class.

Yale University, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania take up the next three top spots in our survey. All have entering classes that are at least 11 percent Black.

The progress of the Ivy League schools over the past decade in admitting Black students has been impressive. In 2006, Columbia University had the highest percentage of Black first-year students at 9.6 percent. This year six of the eight Ivy League schools had entering classes that were 10.9 percent Black or higher. In 2006, the lowest percentage of Blacks in an entering class was 5.9 percent. This year it is 8.8 percent. In 2006, there were 1,110 Black students in the entering classes at the eight Ivy League schools. In 2017, there are 1,663, nearly a 50 percent increase.

Three years ago, there were 84 Black students in the entering class at Washington University in St. Louis. They made up 4.8 percent of the entering class. Only two high-ranking research universities had a lower percentage of Black students in their first-year classes. By 2015, there were 159 Black students in the entering class, making up 9.2 percent of all first-year students. At that time admissions officials told JBHE that  “our number is still relatively small and we hope to continue to make progress as our efforts expand further.” They have made good on that promise. Last year, there were 221 Black students in the entering class, making up 12.4 percent of all first-year students. This placed Washington University in first place overall. This year, Washington University slips to eighth place overall, due to a drop of more than 11 percent in Black first-year students. However, Blacks still make up a very respectable 11 percent of the entering class, more than double the percentage from three years ago.

In 2004, only two of the nation’s highest-ranked universities had incoming classes that were more than 10 percent Black. This year there are 12 high-ranked universities with an entering class that is more than 10 percent Black. This is an all-time record for our survey. In 2017, five high-ranking universities have an entering class that is at least 12 percent Black. In 2004, there were none. These figures are a major sign of progress for African Americans at our top universities.

The three bottom places in our survey belong to universities that are prohibited by state law from considering race in their admissions procedures. The University of California at Berkeley is at the bottom of the list with an entering class that is 2.9 percent Black. The percentage of Black first-year students at Berkeley remains significantly below the level of Black enrollments that existed before that state enacted a ban on race-sensitive admissions.

Gainers and Losers

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We have data on first-year enrollments of Black students at 26 high-ranking research universities for both 2016 and 2017. Eighteen showed gains over the previous year in Black student first-year enrollments. Only eight high-ranking universities showed declines in their number of entering students who are Black. It must be noted that gains in the number of first-year Black students at some universities may be due to overall increases in the size of the first-year class and not necessarily due to a higher percentage of Black first-year students.

This year Princeton University leads the list. It has 147 Black students in its entering class, up from 102 in 2016. This is a gain of 44 percent. Rice University shows a 30.7 percent increase in Black first-year students. Both Johns Hopkins University and Dartmouth College posted gains of more than 20 percent in Black first-year students.

UCLA, Washington University, and the University of Notre Dame were the only major high-ranking research universities to post a decline of more than 10 percent in Black students in their first-year classes.

A Note on Methodology

Before we continue with the results, it is important to mention how the U.S. Department of Education collects data on the race of undergraduates. Before a change was made several years ago, students who reported more than one race (including African American) were included in the figures for Black students. This is no longer the case. Thus, students who self-identify as biracial or multiracial with some level of African heritage are no longer classified as Black by the Department of Education.

JBHE surveys have always asked respondents to include all students who self-identify as having African American or African heritage including those who are actually from Africa. JBHE has always maintained that biracial, multiracial, and Black students from Africa add to the diversity of a college campus. And including these students in our figures offers college-bound Black students a better idea of what they can expect at a given college or university. In order that we can compare our current data to past JBHE surveys we have continued to asked colleges and universities to include all students who identify themselves as having African American or African heritage.

Black Student Acceptance Rates

It is well recognized that the percentage of Black applicants who actually receive invitations to join the entering class is a valuable gauge of an institution’s commitment to racial diversity. Yet this figure is regarded as the most sensitive of all admissions data. This is particularly true for some of the very highest-ranked institutions.

Of the 27 highest-ranked universities for which we have data on Black students in their entering classes, we have Black acceptance rate statistics for only 12 universities. Unquestionably, public and private litigation threats to affirmative action policies in college admissions have been a factor in producing this sensitivity. With this in mind, admissions officers — who on the whole are solidly supportive of affirmative action — have apprehensions when statistics on Black admissions are made available to the public. There are standard concerns too that racial conservatives on faculties and among alumni and trustees may interpret the figures as suggesting a so-called dumbing down of academic standards and a favoring of “unqualified” Blacks over perhaps more qualified Whites.

But, at the same time it is critical to keep in mind that an institution’s high Black acceptance rate often indicates nothing more than the fact that the admissions office of a given institution has a very strong and well-qualified Black applicant pool.

At six of the 12 universities that supplied acceptance rate data to JBHE, the Black student acceptance rate was higher than the acceptance rate for all students. In some cases the differences were significant but larger disparities have been seen in prior surveys. Six of the high-ranking universities we surveyed had Black acceptance rates that were in fact lower than the overall acceptance rate. Two of these four are campuses of the University of California that are prohibited by state law from considering race in admissions decisions.

Of the 13 universities that reported Black student yield, the highest rate was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, 66.7 percent of all Black students accepted for admission decided to enroll. Among the reporting universities, Cornell University ranked second in Black student yield with a rate of 48.4 percent. Traditionally Harvard University and Stanford University have the highest Black student yields. But this year Black student yield at these high-ranking institutions was not made available to JBHE.

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