With Black student enrollment at Illinois colleges and universities in a steep decline, a new coalition of educators, business executives, politicians and students have unveiled their proposals for closing the equity gap between Black and white students in higher education.
The Equity Working Group for Black Student Access and Success in Illinois Higher Education released its action plan Monday, a framework to help understand root causes of educational disparity for Black students and to tackle issues like college affordability, preparedness and support that helps keep students enrolled.
Recommendations from the group, which launched last summer, include anti-racist academic advising to increase student success, grants and need-based funding to make higher education more affordable and access to college credit courses and career exploration for high school students.
The number of Black students enrolled in Illinois college and universities — including public, private and for-profit — fell almost 30% between 2013 and 2018, with community colleges seeing a drop in Black enrollment of more than 33%, according to a 2020 equity study by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Overall enrollment dropped by about 16% during that time, with Black students making up a declining portion of the total student population during those years.
African-American students were also “significantly less likely than their white peers” to stay in school long enough to earn a degree, the working group wrote in its report.
Such statistics indicate “a crisis for Illinois and its Black students,” the report states.
While student migration to out-of-state schools is a partial factor in the decline, advocates say much of the decline is because of systemic barriers in the higher education system: affordability, access to early college experience and exploration, and inequitable school institutions.
“Illinois’ higher education and workforce systems are failing Black students,” the equity working group wrote.
The pandemic has only exacerbated enrollment struggles as health and financial strain have kept students from attending school. But it has affected Black students in a “more significant” way than other groups, said Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, president of Chicago State University and co-chair of the working group.
“Higher education is a game-changer” for closing the wealth gap, Scott said. “We have to be even more intentional about our strategies for engaging and supporting our minority communities in coming through the pandemic, particularly around higher education.”
The time it takes to earn a college degree is one of the greatest determinants of Black student success, said Illinois Board of Higher Education Chair John Atkinson, a co-chair of the equity group. Dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credit while in high school help reduce the financial burden of college, and “even a small amount of additional financial support can be the difference between remaining in school versus dropping out,” Atkinson said.
Illinois colleges and universities “must also take responsibility for reforming inequitable student systems,” Atkinson said, “instead of placing the burden of navigating college bureaucracies on Black first-generation students, Black students from low-income backgrounds and other Black students across the state.”
Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford said the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is working to pass policies to address recommendations made in the action plan, including a current bill that would form a commission to provide an equity-based funding formula for higher education in the state.
Some of the “most powerful” input shaping the initiative’s action steps was provided by students themselves, said Karen Freeman-Wilson, a co-chair of the group and president and CEO of Chicago Urban League. Hearing their experiences was “part and parcel” of the action plan, she said.
Jonathan Banks II was among students who gave input. The 20-year-old from Oak Park graduated this spring from the University of Illinois at Chicago after just three years, with tuition and housing costs covered. But Banks said what’s critical about the action plan is that it’s not just about financial support.
“Building an environment that makes Black students feel welcomed, seen and heard is just as critical,” Banks said. “It covers the emotional aspects of going to a college or university that financial support doesn’t always cover.”
For Banks, that included being involved with the Black Student Union and African American Academic Network, among other campus groups. He was also able to spend the summer as a paid researcher.
The plan calls on businesses to support the initiative through summer internship programs and better trauma-informed mental health resources in the workplace. The “specific strategy” aims to harness Black talent in the corporate labor market, said Tyronne Stoudemire of Hyatt Corp., a member of the working group.
“I don’t think we have five years to waste,” Stoudemire said. “We have about 18 months before we get this in place, so we’re driving this a lot faster because we just need the talent to be able to build jobs.”
Britton Johnson finished his undergraduate degree this spring and will start a graduate program in the fall, both at Northern Illinois University. He works with Black Male Initiative, a retention program on campus that teaches Black males about being successful at NIU. The university is a “pretty good school” at committing to equity and hearing students’ concerns, said Johnson, 23, of West Pullman in Chicago.
Even at a school as diverse as Northern Illinois, Johnson said the “reality” is that Black men coming to Northern will face challenges.
“(Black students) might not necessarily be as capable or in the best position to get all of the resources that are available to all students just because they don’t know about them,” Johnson said. “We go ahead and teach them and point them in the right direction just to level the playing field and give them as much direction.”
Retention is “one of the biggest downfalls,” not just for Black students, but also for first-generation and low-income students, Johnson said. Support to keep students enrolled, as the action plan outlines, helps “make the playing field more level,” Johnson said.
Chicago State will house a Center for Education Equity that will reach across business, education and policy sectors to address the higher education equity gap. A second phase of the equity group’s action plan, the center is scheduled to open in December, Scott said.
The action plan is simply a first step toward making higher education more equitable in Illinois, said working group member Sameer Gadkaree, a program officer at The Joyce Foundation, a social justice philanthropy. cq
“The equity action plan is a down payment on addressing these issues,” Gadkaree said. “It’s a first step towards addressing a racially stratified higher education system that does not offer equal access to our best-funded colleges, does not offer affordable, high-quality access to all students.”