Black First-Year Students at the Nation’s Leading Liberal Arts Colleges

For the past 26 years, JBHE has collected Black student admissions data from the highest-ranked liberal arts colleges. Over this long period, there have been 11 years when Amherst College in Massachusetts reported the highest percentage of Black first-year students. On six occasions, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, had enrolled the highest percentage of Black first-year students.

Two years ago, Amherst College finished atop our survey for the 11th time and for the fourth time in five years. A year ago, there were 77 Black first-year students at Amherst, only one less than the previous year. Blacks made up 15.5 percent of the 2018 entering class. Four years ago, there were 87 Black first-year students at Amherst. They made up a whopping 18.2 percent of the first-year class. This was the largest percentage of Black first-year students at any of the high-ranking liberal arts colleges in the 25 years that JBHE has conducted this survey. This year, Amherst College once again sits on top of the survey. There are 81 Black students in this year’s entering class. They make up 17.2 percent of the first-year class.

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Three years ago, for the first time in the history of our survey, Pomona College in Claremont, California, had the highest percentage of Black students in the entering classes at the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. There were 65 Black first-year students at Pomona College that year. They made up 15.8 percent of the entering class.  Two years ago, Pomona dropped to fourth place with an entering class that was 12.6 percent Black. A year ago, once again Pomona sat atop our rankings. Pomona had 67 Black first-year students, up from 52 the previous year. Blacks were 16.3 percent of the first-year class. This year, Pomona College finished in second place. There are 58 Black students in the entering class at Pomona College in this year. They make up 13.9 percent of the first-year class.

Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, ranks third in this year’s survey with an entering class that is 13 percent Black. In 2018, Bowdoin also ranked third with an entering class that was 13.3 percent Black. Two years ago, Bowdoin ranked second with an entering class that was 14.3 percent Black. At that time, a Bowdoin spokesperson told JBHE that “diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences are essential components of a liberal arts education. So, we have broadened our recruitment efforts to different areas of the country. We have also eliminated a barrier for some students by doing away with our application fee for those applying for financial aid and for first-generation college students.”

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania ranks fourth in our survey this year. Last, year Swarthmore held the fifth spot. For the prior two years, Swarthmore has held the third position. There are 52 Black first-year students at the college this year, making up 12.4 percent of the entering class. Four years ago, Swarthmore ranked 14th in our survey of leading liberal arts colleges in the percentage of Black students in the entering class. That year, Blacks were just 8.1 percent of the first-year class.

Barnard College in New York City has an entering class than is 10.7 percent Black. This places the women’s college in fifth place in our survey, up from sixth last year and up seven spots from two years ago.

Wesleyan University, which as stated, has led our rankings on six occasions including six years ago, ranks sixth in this year’s survey. Blacks are 11.1 percent of the first-year class at Wesleyan. Seven years ago when Wesleyan led the rankings, Blacks were 11.3 percent of the entering class.

Three other high-ranking liberal arts colleges have entering classes that are at least 10 percent Black. They are Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Claremont McKenna College in California. Claremont McKenna College reported a large increase in Black first-year students this year.

Oberlin College in Ohio has a long history of supporting African American higher education and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the pre-Civil War era. Oberlin College and Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, both reported entering classes that were more than 9 percent Black. Lafayette College showed a major increase from 45 Black first-year students in 2017 to 69 this academic year.

Williams College has been a consistent performer is our survey over the past quarter century. Four years ago, Williams ranked third with an entering class that was 13.1 percent Black. A year ago, a college spokesperson told JBHE that “we are unable to provide this information and will be unable to provide it going forward.” No information was provided on why the decision not to participate was made. Through public data, we were able to determine that under U.S. Department of Education classifications, Blacks make up 5.5 percent of the entering students at Williams College this year.

Here is one very encouraging statistic: In 2009, only three of the nation’s high-ranking liberal arts colleges had entering classes that were at least 10 percent Black. This year there are nine.

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 ask colleges and universities to include all students who identify themselves as having African American or African heritage.

Some of our responding liberal arts colleges chose to report results that correspond with official Department of Education figures. They are indicated on the main table with an asterisk. It should be noted that if biracial, multiracial, and Black foreign students were included in the Black percentage of students in the first-year classes at these institutions, the overall percentage of Black students would undoubtedly be higher.

Black Student Acceptance Rates

In the past, almost all leading liberal arts colleges divulged data on Black student acceptance rates. In recent years, the number of liberal arts colleges that have refused to divulge the data has grown. The recent litigation involving the admissions practices of Harvard University concerning Asian American students appears to have struck a nerve in higher education circles. Colleges and universities increasingly seem to want to hold their cards close to their vests and not add fuel to efforts to challenge affirmative action admissions policies.

Seven years ago, for the first time in the history of the JBHE survey of liberal arts colleges, more responding colleges had a lower acceptance rate for Black students than their overall acceptance rate compared to the number of colleges that had a Black acceptance rate that was higher than their overall rate. This was true again in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. This makes the eighth year in a row when more liberal arts colleges that chose to divulge this data showed a lower acceptance rate for Black students than the acceptance rate for students overall.

While no firm conclusions can be made, the fact that for the past eight years there are now more colleges with overall acceptance rates that are higher than Black acceptance rates, causes one to wonder if there has been some curtailment in colleges’ consideration of race in admissions decisions. Or it may be that the colleges that have a much higher acceptance rate for Black students than they do for the applicant pool as a whole, are unwilling to publicize this information in fear of litigation or do not wish to anger some contributing alumni who are not in favor of race-sensitive admissions.

Also, there are very few colleges that chose to report Black student acceptance rate data where there is a large racial gap in acceptance rates. Typically, the margin is very small.

There are some exceptions. For example, at Macalester College in Minnesota, 32.3 percent of all students were accepted but only 20 percent of Black students were admitted. In contrast, Harvey Mudd College accepted only 13.7 percent of all applicants. But the acceptance rate for Black applicants was 35 percent.

Student yield is calculated by seeing what percentage of accepted students decided to enroll. Among the leading liberal arts colleges who supplied this information to JBHE, the highest Black student yield was at Bowdoin College in Maine. There, 50.8 percent of accepted Black students decided to enroll. Bates College in Maine had the second-highest Black student yield at 47.8 percent. Among the institutions reporting yield data, Pomona College, Barnard College, Lafayette College, and Trinity College were the only other leading liberal arts colleges that had a Black student yield of more than 40 percent.

One-Year Gainers and Losers in Black First-Year Enrollments at High-Ranking Liberal Arts Colleges

School20182019% Change
Claremont McKenna College1233+175.0
Mount Holyoke College2344+91.2
Harvey Mudd College1524+60.0
Macalester College3351+54.5
Trinity College3342+27.3
Middlebury College2834+21.4
Colgate University3843+13.2
Swarthmore College4652+13.0
Barnard College6571+9.2
Amherst College7781+5.2
Lafayette College6769+3.0
Wesleyan University8487+3.6
Grinnell College20200.0
Smith College3736-2.7
Washington & Lee Univ.3029-3.3
Bowdoin College6865-4.4
Williams College3330-9.1
Vassar College6356-11.1
Bucknell University3632-11.1
Pomona College6758-13.4
Bryn Mawr College1714-17.6
Hamilton College3428-17.6
Bates College4133-19.5
Oberlin College8365-21.7
Davidson College4132-22.0
Caution: Some colleges showing major drops in number of Black students may now only be reporting figures corresponding with U.S. Dept. of Education guidelines, whereas in the past, numbers may have included foreign Black and biracial students. Those showing major increases may be due to the inclusion of all students who identify as Black, whereas in the past the college may have only report numbers corresponding to DOE classifications.

Note: Only colleges that reported data in both 2018 and 2019 are included.

source: JBHE Research Department

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  1. Thank you for reporting your annual survey because it is important for the general public to know this information.

    Your survey is accurate because I grew up in the East and educated in The Cradle of Intellectual America that tops your list.


    James A. Johnson, Esq.

  2. How is the list of colleges compiled? There are colleges that fall under the elite label that are not included, e.g., Haverford, Colorado College, Kenyon, Washington University St. Louis …
    The list is useful for prospective students and their families, it would be helpful to know which highly selective colleges chose not to participate and why a more complete list of top colleges is not available.

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