Sabrina Christian stepped out of her mother’s minivan on move-in day at the University of Maryland four years ago and looked around at her new schoolmates busily lugging boxes into a high-rise brick dorm building.
The Baltimore native says she saw only a sea of white faces on the College Park campus.
I should have gone to an HBCU, she thought to herself. She might have felt more at home at a historically black college or university.
Four years later, the state’s flagship public university still enrolls disproportionately few black students, as compared to the state’s population.
That’s true at flagship universities across the nation, analysts say in a report to be released Monday. But the disparity at Maryland is particularly stark: Black students made up 36 percent of the state’s high school graduates in 2015, but only 12 percent of the freshman class at College Park that fall.
Only six states had a larger gap, according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on education.
The trend concerns educators. Taxpayer-funded flagship universities, created to serve their states’ residents, are considered beacons of attainable, affordable education. College Park graduates earn more, on average, than graduates of almost all other public universities in Maryland. (Only the University of Maryland Baltimore, which includes medical and law schools, ranks higher.)
“A state school should be committed to its state’s population,” said Omari Jackson, a professor of urban educational leadership at Morgan State University, a historically black school in Baltimore. He said flagship schools should try to reach demographically proportional representation in student enrollment.
“The school you go to matters,” he said. “There’s cachet to being able to say, ‘I went to Maryland.’ ”
Percentage of first-time black students at UMD
Black representation among first-time students at the University of Maryland, College Park has fallen to a five year low.
University of Maryland officials tout diversity as a strength. Roughly 43 percent of this year’s first-time students identify as minorities. About 20 percent identified as Asian students, nearly 8 percent as Hispanic and 4 percent as more than one race.
Just 10.8 percent identify as African American, the fewest in at least five years.
Several racially charged incidents on campus in recent years — including the killing last year of a black Bowie State University student, allegedly by a white University of Maryland student, now being prosecuted as a hate crime — have increased tension among students. Students of color have questioned the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.
The University of Maryland set aside $3.8 million for new diversity measures following the killing, university President Wallace D. Loh said last week. The university also hired a firm to take campus climate surveys every two years, created an institute for inclusiveness in higher education, and established a rapid-response team for bias incidents, Loh told The Baltimore Sun editorial board last week.
Across the University System of Maryland — 11 traditional public universities, including three that are historically black — black students represented 25.6 percent of all students enrolled in fall 2017. College Park had the lowest percentage of African-American students.
2017 UMD first-time student enrollment
Minorities represent roughly 43 percent of first-time students enrolled this fall, including about 20 percent who identified as Asian, nearly 8 percent as Hispanic and 4 percent as more than one race. But just 10.8 percent are African American, the lowest representation of first-time black students in at least five years.
Loh said the school faces strong competition for black students. Maryland is home to four historically black universities — the three in the state university system plus Morgan State — and it’s just a short drive to Howard University in Washington, one of the most highly regarded historically black universities in the country.
As a nationwide increase in tensions between races becomes more visible on college campuses, administrators at historically black colleges and universities say they’re seeing increased interest from students looking for a welcoming environment.
When Michelle Sherman was a senior last year at Baltimore City College, the state flagship was never really a consideration.
“The demographic of the school just wasn’t what I was looking for,” she said. “For college, I wanted to be around people who are like me and dealing with the same things as me.”
She is now studying business at Bowie State University. Her race is a non-issue at Bowie; she feels at home.
At the student bookstore, she has no problem finding hair and skin products for African-American women. On “soul food Wednesdays,” the campus diner serves foods she grew up eating.
Amari Harris, a sophomore at College Park from Baltimore, believes the differences in school quality across Maryland contribute to the racial disparity at the university.
Racial disparities at the University of Maryland, College Park
The demographic percentages of 2015 Maryland high school graduates differ from the enrollment rate at UMD.
Some high schools have robotics clubs and debate teams, he says. Others offer few electives that will enhance students’ education and make them more competitive college applicants. Harris graduated from Baltimore’s Northwestern High School, which has since been closed.
Shannon Gundy, the director of undergraduate admissions at College Park, says recruiting students of color is a priority. The university offers scholarships for public school graduates from Baltimore and Prince George’s County, and programs to help students navigate the admissions process.
Some black students said their small numbers at the University of Maryland can be isolating, especially amid a recent rash of incidents: white supremacist fliers, swastikas, a noose.
Sabrina Christian speaks of being one of only a handful of black students in a classroom, and feeling that white students or professors sometimes look at her differently when she raises her hand. She’s been called racial slurs by other students, and says she’s felt fearful ever since Army 2nd Lt. Richard W. Collins III, the black student visiting from Bowie State, was stabbed to death at a campus bus stop last year.
“It’s emotional labor all the time as a minority student on a predominantly white campus,” Christian said.
Harris, a sociology major, speaks to potential students and their families at campus open houses. The number one question he says he gets from black parents: “How can I feel safe sending my kid here?”
“All I can do is reassure them that, yeah, it was a scary situation, but I have never felt like it overwhelmed my purpose of being here,” he said.
The university has identified improving diversity as an area of focus in its strategic plan. Loh recently appointed a new chief diversity officer, and elevated the position to his cabinet.
Loh said there’s “no question” that university has to do a better job recruiting diverse students and creating an inclusive environment.
“It’s an absolute priority because education is the great equalizer,” Loh said. “It’s the pathway to social and economic opportunity.”
Four years after her first moving day, Christian says she has found her place on campus. She has taken leadership roles in a variety of student groups, and was a member of College Park Scholars and her college’s dean’s student advisory council.
She wants more African-American students to come to College Park.
“I’m really big on creating a positive black presence on campus,” Christian said. “The more they see my face, the more comfortable they’ll be with black people being successful.”