The University of Maryland (UMD) is one of the most diverse flagships in the nation. Because higher education is the great equalizer in a democracy, a prime driver of societal mobility, we go to great lengths to promote a diverse and inclusive educational environment that benefits all students. Once here, we put a premium on their academic success.
Among our approximately 28,000 undergraduates, 43 percent are students of color, including 22 percent from historically underrepresented backgrounds, such as African-American, Latino and Native American. These rates exceed those of every one of our Big Ten peers.
But a Baltimore Sun article published last week conveys a different impression: “Black student enrollment lags at the University of Maryland,” the headline reads. Based on the recently-released Hechinger Report, it compared the percentage of African-Americans among high school graduates in the state, 36 percent, with the percentage of African-Americans who are undergraduates at UMD, 12 percent — a large gap.
The 36 percent figure is not the correct comparison yardstick for three reasons:
- Not all high school graduates go to college;
- Not all who go to college might want to attend UMD. High school graduates in our state have an abundance of fine public and private schools to choose from, including several historically black colleges and universities;
- And this figure includes only public high school graduates; it excludes private school graduates.
If these factors are taken into account in constructing the statewide yardstick, the correct figure would be lower than 36 percent. Therefore, the difference between the statewide figure and the UMD enrollment figure would have been less.
We cannot calculate the precise gap, but we know how many African-American graduates from public and private schools in the state apply to UMD. This is a more appropriate yardstick. In recent years, 17 percent to 20 percent of in-state applicants annually to UMD have been African-American — far less than the 36 percent figure.
Also, the 12 percent figure used in the article represents all African-American undergraduates at UMD, both in-state and out-of-state. The proportion of in-state undergraduates who are African-American currently stands at 15 percent. This latter figure is the more appropriate one to look at, since the focus of the article is to compare African American high school graduates in the state with in-state UMD undergraduates.
Thus, the true gap is not a difference of 24 points (36 percent versus 12 percent). It is a difference of 2 to 5 points (17 percent to 20 percent versus 15 percent).
To put UMD’s overall enrollment of African-Americans in state-wide context: Among four-year public institutions in Maryland (excluding historically black colleges and universities), the overall enrollment of African-American students ranges from 10 percent to 62 percent, with an average of 16 percent — a bit higher than our percentage.
It is important to emphasize that looking at the percentage of African-American high school graduates in the state who might attend UMD (whether that figure is 36 percent, 20 percent or 17 percent) does not mean that this is a “goal” or “quota” for admission decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that such racial quantification in admissions is unconstitutional, though the court has recognized the benefits of diversity for promoting learning and preparing students for the workplace.
As a result, when our UMD admissions officers review more than 30,000 applications for about 4,000 freshman spots, academic factors weigh most heavily among two-dozen other factors, which include race, ethnicity, intellectual interests, special talents, extracurricular activities, leadership and work experiences, family circumstances, community service, etc. Our selection process is a holistic, individualized and careful evaluation to determine whether an applicant will succeed at — and contribute to — UMD.
The state’s interest is not only to provide access to higher education for high school graduates. It is also to make sure that these students will finish college and contribute to society. At UMD, after we admit students, we make a determined commitment to their success in college and beyond.
As a result, our overall graduation rate (85 percent) is in the upper echelon of flagship universities nationwide. The graduation rate of African-Americans (80 percent) is the highest among Big Ten institutions. The so-called “achievement gap” — the difference in graduation rate between the overall campus rate and that of historically underrepresented students — has been cut by one-half over the past several years.
The success of African-American students at UMD has been recognized nationally. In 2016, Essence magazine, in collaboration with Money magazine, ranked UMD No. 10 overall and No. 3 among publics in the “50 Best Colleges for African-Americans.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education designated UMD as a “Top Minority Degree Producer.” The Alliance for Science Technology and Research puts UMD No. 7 in the nation for the most African-American engineering graduates. These results reflect our commitment to the enrollment and success of African-American students.
Can we do better? We are working on it.
Wallace D. Loh is President of the University of Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @presidentloh.