Revisiting the Missouri Effect

In the fall of 2015, the University of Missouri gained national attention as Black students protested a number of conditions on the campus. The football team even joined in the protest, threatening to boycott games. In the end, both the system president and campus chancellor stepped down.

Soon after, similar protests popped up all across the country. Primarily led by Black students, they provided a range of demands, primarily focused on improving their campus experience. Additional Black faculty, staff and students were popular requests.

During the summer of 2016, I started to see posts and hear stories from colleagues at HBCUs that they were seeing increases in applications and enrollment. I began to consider if the protests at the University of Missouri not only inspired similar action all across the nation, but if it caused high school students and their families to reconsider college fit. In my op-ed for the Washington Post, I wrote:

I’ve noticed that students and their families are giving historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs, a second look, and many really like what they see.

While some thought my piece was a prediction of long term increased enrollment, I clearly indicated that for 2016 there definitely was a Missouri Effect (as well as 2017), but the effect really described a more holistic approach Black families would have in identifying which schools would be the best fit, and for more of them, they would have an open mind when considering HBCUs.

For example, part of the Missouri Effect is families realizing that you can’t go to a school in the Iowa cornfields and want it to become Wakanda with lots of Black faculty, staff, students, Black studies majors, Black themed housing, etc. If you want those things you go to Wakanda, in this case, HBCUs. If you go to those cornfields, accept it for what it is — Asgard.

Janelle Williams and Robert Palmer began studying the effect along with other racial factors impacting enrollment choices. Their qualitative research looked at why students were exploring HBCUs as potential places to continue their education.

But the news broke in early 2020 that the official numbers for Fall 2018 found that HBCU enrollment DROPPED to 291,767 “down from the 298,134 in the previous year, and was the lowest total since 2001, when there were 289,985 students at historically black colleges.” While only a 2% drop, it caught the eye of many people, and they began a deficit narrative to explain the drop.

Most of the time people use numbers without context. I started to peel back the numbers and looked at Black students attending HBCUs. From Fall 2017 to Fall 2018, Black enrollment at HBCUs dropped 1.6%, less than the 2% for overall HBCU enrollment. Then looking at all Black students in higher education, enrollment dropped 2.2%, a drop greater than the Black enrollment drop at HBCUs.

In August of 2019 the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the overall problem: there has been a slow leak of Black students attending ANY higher education institution. They wrote that Black enrollment “hit a peak in 2010 and has declined by more than 13 percent since then. Sixty-six percent of recent black high-school graduates enrolled in college in 2010. By 2017 that share had fallen to 58 percent.”

Not only was there an enrollment problem, there was a PIPELINE problem!

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Monthly Update on Higher Education Enrollment from November 12, 2020 indicated the trend has continued so far fall 2020. These two charts are clear:

Overall Black undergraduate enrollment fell from Fall 2018 to Fall 2019 by 4.6%, and from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 by 7.5%.

HBCU enrollment (overwhelmingly Black), fell only 2.1% from Fall 2018 to Fall 2019, and 5.5% from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020. For both years, HBCU enrollment was more resilient even though it fell as well. So the narrative that painted HBCUs as having done something wrong, causing a 17 year low in enrollment (still 6% higher than 2000) misreads the larger picture and the real emergency.

There are fewer Black students going to college. Period.

It’s Time to Worry About College Enrollment Declines Among Black Students — Center for American Progress

That is the conversation that we should have.

So does this mean the Missouri Effect is wrong or was simply a two year phenomenon? Not exactly. HBCU enrollment has had a steady decline since Brown vs Board when 90% of Black students attended HBCUs. By 2000 only 13.1% of Black students attended HBCUs, and by 2015, the year of the Missouri protest, HBCUs enrolled only 8.5% of Black students, the lowest percentage ever. But by 2018, 9% of Black students were enrolled at HBCUs, the first time in 70 years where the proportion of students at HBCUs actually increased.

With HBCU enrollment dropping at a slower rate than Black student enrollment in 2019 and 2020, there will be a small increase in the proportion of Black students attending HBCUs over the next two years of reports.

So while there are fewer Black students in higher education, a greater proportion of them are choosing HBCUs. That’s a good thing. And that’s part of what I hope would happen after Missouri; that students and families would choose institutions that were the best fit for them, and for more students than presently attend them, HBCUs are really the best fit.

The Prez

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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