Buckeye barriers: Students of color underrepresented and under-served at OSU
By Eleanor Eckerson Peters, Institute for Higher Education Policy
A college degree can offer economic security to people from all walks of life. But longstanding inequities in higher education close doors of opportunity to many students. Public flagships like The Ohio State University – Main Campus (OSU) are premier, well-resourced institutions. OSU could and should be pioneering ways to expand opportunity for all Ohioans, whether black, white or brown.
Instead, OSU is part of the problem. A recent Institute for Higher Education (IHEP) analysis reveals persistent barriers to completion for students of color and low-income students at OSU. While OSU should enroll and graduate more underrepresented students overall, troubling inequities for black students warrant special attention.
We examined access inequity by comparing the share of black and Hispanic students in OSU’s incoming freshman class with the share of Ohio high school graduates. Black students make up a growing share of Ohio’s high school graduates over the last decade. But black student representation at OSU has actually declined. By spring 2016, 14 percent of Ohio’s high school graduates were black compared to just 4 percent of OSU’s incoming freshmen — a 10 percentage point difference (Figure 1).
Black students who enroll at OSU have a lower chance of graduating within six years than their white peers. Completion gaps between Black and white students have narrowed from 17 percentage points in 1997 to 10 percentage points in 2016. The remaining gap is largely due to OSU’s failure to serve black students—who may face financial hurdles and unwelcoming campus environments. Less than three-quarters of black students (74 percent) graduate from OSU within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanic students and 84 percent of white students (Figure 2).
OSU’s policies and practices shape the opportunities available to under-served students. To eliminate racial barriers, OSU leaders must commit to increasing racial and economic diversity and supporting students of color and low-income students through to completion.
One way to do this is by increasing aid to students who need it most. In the 2015–16 academic year, just 59 percent of OSU’s institutional grant aid was awarded based on financial need. In 2015–16, the lowest income students at OSU—those with family incomes of $30,000 or less—paid about $8,450 in college expenses after grant aid. This means that students with the fewest resources must devote more than a quarter of their annual family incomes to college costs.
There is some good news. Starting in fall 2018, OSU will ensure that all in-state students who qualify for Pell Grants receive an aid package that covers the full cost of tuition and mandatory fees by making additional investments in need-based financial aid. And OSU rightly avoids several admissions practices that can exclude qualified low-income students and students of color, including early decision, legacy preferences, and considerations of students’ demonstrated interest or previous interactions with the criminal justice system. Eradicating barriers starts with these steps and also requires unwavering leadership alongside a solid financial investment.
The data make clear that OSU still has plenty of work to do to equitably serve low-income students and students of color—particularly black students. OSU has a responsibility to ensure that all institution policies enhance equity rather than perpetuate privilege. But it has yet to leverage its resources to fully open the doors of opportunity to hardworking Ohio students from all backgrounds. To serve as a catalyst for mobility and equity in Ohio, OSU must do a better job of enrolling and graduating under-served students.