"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges

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"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges
“The Most Racist City”: Factors Leading to
Low Black Representation in the Student
Bodies of Boston’s Elite Colleges
Austin Tarullo - Boston College

                hile black students make up 12 percent of undergraduate student en-
                rollment in Chicago, 13 percent in Philadelphia, 20 percent in Miami,
                and 32 percent in Atlanta, they make up just seven percent in Boston,
whose population is one quarter black. Boston’s elite universities fair even worse:
in 2015, black students accounted for 5 percent of the student body at Harvard, 4
percent at Boston University and Boston College, and 3 percent at Northeastern
University and M.I.T. While some admissions counselors claim that low black rep-
resentation is a result of smaller black populations in New England than nationally,
Amherst College, where black students made up 12 percent of the student-body
in 2015, illustrates that schools in this region can attract racially-diverse student
populations. Given these facts, this study investigates factors that lead to low black
representation in Boston’s elite universities through a mixed-methods approach.
     Amherst College attributes part of its success in attracting a racially-diverse
student body to its decision to outreach and recruit in low-income areas around
the country and at majority-minority high schools. Thus, this study begins by com-
paring outreach at two Massachusetts colleges with different proportions of black
undergraduate students–Amherst College and Boston College, where black stu-
dents comprise 12 and 4 percent of the undergraduate student bodies, respectively.
I analyze the racial and financial demographics of high schools that these colleges
visit and recruit from to see if there are meaningful differences that can explain
the divergence in racial composition at these colleges. Upon investigation, there
is a statistically significant divergence: Amherst College visits high schools whose
student bodies have, on average, a 4.8 percent higher share of black students, a
3.8 percent higher share of Latinx students, and 2.5 percent higher share of Asian
     Following the present and statistically significant difference between the ra-
cial compositions of high schools that Amherst College and Boston College recruit
from, the next question this study addresses is whether or not local high school
students perceive these differences in black representation and if any perceptions
affects their likelihood to attend or apply to these local universities. For this pur-
pose, this portion of this study investigates how students of color in Boston per-

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"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges
ceive the racial inclusivity of these local campuses. Through a collaboration with
      Boston HERC, a non-profit organization offering college preparation courses to
      disadvantaged youth, I conducted focus groups with high school students at Bos-
      ton Public Schools in lower-income Boston zip codes to discuss if and how these
      students’ racial identities affect their decisions on which colleges to apply. Through
      conversations in these focus groups, students’ racial identities do not appear to play
      a role in their college decisions.

          I am immensely grateful to the Boston Higher Education Resource Center
      (HERC), whose partnership provided me with an opportunity to speak with Bos-
      ton high school students. Their collaborative and cordial class instructors facilitat-
      ed the focus groups while making them both fun and informative.
          I also wish to thank my advisor, Professor Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, whose sin-
      cere and valuable guidance and assistance made my research possible. In addition,
      his course The Economics of Inequality, which I took during the spring of 2017,
      catalyzed my interest in economic inequality, a field which I hope to pursue after I

           In February 2017, Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che addressed the upcoming
      Super Bowl matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots in
      the Weekend Update segment. Che, who is black, is known for his honest, obser-
      vational humor, so it was not a surprise that his punch line invoked race. It was a
      surprise, however, whom he indicted in the joke: “I just want to relax, turn my brain
      off, and watch the blackest city in America beat the most racist city I’ve ever been
      to.” Many Bostonians were struck: how could Boston–the liberal bastion that often
      conceives the country’s most progressive laws–be racist?
           In December 2017, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team published a series inves-
      tigating the sources of Boston’s racist reputation. The team discovered that the rep-
      utation is not a result of overt, 1950s-esque displays of racism but rather of subtle
      segregation and inequities that remain invisible to those who are not directly affect-
      ed. One of the series’ seven parts was devoted to the Boston-area colleges, where
      black representation in undergraduate student bodies is strikingly low. In the last
      two decades, national black enrollment at postsecondary institutions has risen sub-
      stantially, especially at institutions granting associates degrees. In addition, there
      has been a modest rise at institutions granting bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates.
      However, at top-tier universities, black undergraduate representation has remained
      unchanged–averaging 6 percent– for the last 20 years (McGill, 2015). Boston falls
      short of this low standard; in the fall of 2015, while the average undergraduate stu-

"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges
dent body was 11 percent black nationally, black students accounted for 5 percent
of undergraduates at Harvard, 4 percent at Boston College, 4 percent at Boston
University, 3 percent at M.I.T., and 3 percent at Northeastern University (Dungca,
2017).1 Other highly-selective colleges in the greater Boston area exhibit similar
proportions.2 In addition, these percentages have remained unchanged since 1980.3
     Why do selective Boston-area colleges exhibit such low percentages of black
students? Some college admissions counselors maintain that low black represen-
tation is the result of smaller black populations in Massachusetts and New En-
gland than nationally; while Boston is 23 percent black, the greater Boston area is
only 7 percent black. However, despite the pervasive low black representation in
highly-selective colleges in the greater Boston area, one elite Massachusetts col-
lege proves that geography does not preclude area colleges from displaying ample
black representation: Amherst College, which accepts just 14 percent of applicants,
has an undergraduate student body that is 12 percent black, exceeding the nation-
al average (Dungca, 2017). Amherst College shows that highly-selective colleges
in Massachusetts can attract racially-diverse student bodies, so why do elite Bos-
ton-area schools struggle to diversify? There are two possible deductions from the
outlier of Amherst College; either geography is not the culprit for low black rep-
resentation, or geography may be the culprit but Amherst has successfully found
strategies to overcome the obstacles that this geography presents in attracting a
racially-diverse student body.
     One explanation for the disparity in representation between Amherst College
and universities in Boston is the generous financial aid policy that Amherst offers.
Amherst College is one of the only colleges in the United States that has replaced
all loans with grants, allowing students to avoid taking out loans that require inter-
est to pay for their education.4 This generous policy allows more individuals from
lower socioeconomic standings to enroll; since the average black family in the U.S.
has considerably less wealth than the average white family in the U.S., this policy
likely aids Amherst College in exhibiting robust black undergraduate representa-
tion. However, Amherst’s success in racial diversity is a result of more than just fi-
nancial aid. If a prospective student’s choice of school was based solely on financial
aid, then Harvard University would display a similar proportion of black students
as Amherst College, since Harvard and Amherst offer nearly identical financial aid
policies.5 However, in 2015 Harvard’s undergraduate student body was just 5 per-
cent black, less than half the proportion of Amherst College. Why is the country’s
premier university struggling to attract black students, and why is a small liberal
arts college located in a rural, Massachusetts farm town succeeding?
     When asked about its success in amply representing black students, admissions
representatives from Amherst College pointed to its substantial efforts to recruit

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"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges
high school students at majority-minority high schools and at high schools in low-
      er-income areas across the country.6 College recruitment is a term often spoken
      about only in the realm of athletics, where talented high school athletes are re-
      cruited by college coaches to play in the NCAA. However, admissions departments
      also recruit; each fall, university representatives travel around the country visiting
      hundreds of high schools, offering information about academics and campus life to
      attract prospective students. By informing prospective students about the strengths
      and benefits of their college, admissions representatives generate awareness about
      their college and increase the likelihood that the students will apply. If a college
      neglects areas with racially-diverse student bodies, it is likely that fewer of those
      students will attend that college. Even worse, colleges with fewer students of color
      risk fostering a campus environment where the few enrolled students of color feel
      unwelcomed or isolated. Is the emphasis that Amherst College places on recruiting
      high school students from majority-minority and lower-income high schools the
      reason for its success in racial diversity?

      Aims and Objectives
           Current literature about factors leading to racial disparities in higher education
      focuses primarily on tuition and K-12 education. No major literature has focused
      on how universities recruit and outreach to high school students, if any meaningful
      differences in recruitment strategies exist between colleges, and if any differences
      in the demographics of high school students that these recruitment strategies target
      correlate with differences in the demographics of undergraduate student bodies at
      these colleges.
           Therefore, I begin by conducting a case study of two Massachusetts colleges–
      Boston College and Amherst College–with significant differences in the racial
      composition of their undergraduate student bodies. These two schools share nu-
      merous characteristics; they are both highly-selective, nationally-renowned, pri-
      vate, liberal-arts focused, and located in Massachusetts. However, while Boston
      College’s 4 percent share of black enrollment sits well below the national average of
      11 percent, Amherst College’s 12 percent black enrollment share exceeds it. I study
      the demographics of the high schools where these two colleges visit to see if there
      are substantial differences in race and income that can explain the divergence in the
      composition of their undergraduate student bodies. If Boston College recruits from
      fewer high schools with large proportions of black students, it may help to explain
      why its student body is only 4 percent black.
           I follow this analysis by conducting focus groups to understand if high school
      students in Boston are aware of the racial disparities at the local universities and
      if any awareness affects their decisions on whether to apply to or attend these uni-

"The Most Racist City": Factors Leading to Low Black Representation in the Student Bodies of Boston's Elite Colleges
versities; do the local, highly-selective colleges that contain few black students gain
reputations among local high school students as excluding students of color? If so,
do these reputations dissuade high school students from applying, thereby rein-
forcing a cycle that sustains black underrepresentation? Specifically, I interview fo-
cus groups of students attending public schools in lower-income Boston zip codes
to understand if low black representation at these elite, Boston-area colleges is a
factor that leads them to eschew applying.7
     I began my research with the assumption that one reason Boston’s elite univer-
sities are underrepresented by black students is because these universities recruit
less from low-income areas in order to focus on more affluent high schools. In ad-
dition, I assumed that these universities have reputations as unwelcoming to racial
minorities among black high school students in Boston. My assumption followed
that these two factors, combined with high tuition, prevent a substantial number of
black students from applying and attending, thereby producing low black under-
graduate enrollment on these campuses.
     Why is black representation on college campuses important? For one, Ameri-
can universities have a duty to guide the ethics of the nation. As the principles of a
country change and adapt, it is often university campuses that serve as the incuba-
tors of these ideas. In order for these principles and ideas to serve all, student bodies
must have ample representation of all groups and demographics. As Keenan (2015,
150) asks, “If African Americans do not find equity in the institutions that teach,
promote values, and set standards, where will they find equity? But in fact, they do
not find it in American universities.” Furthermore, black inclusion in post-second-
ary education is imperative in closing the racial wealth gap present in the United
States. According to Shapiro et. al. (2013, 5), from 1984 to 2009 the total wealth gap
between white and black families in the U.S. nearly tripled, increasing from $85,000
in 1984 to $236,000 in 2009. Disparities in college education accounts for a five
percent share of this gap.
     I begin by briefly outlining the current literature on factors that lead to low black
enrollment in higher education. I then describe my methodology for quantitatively
analyzing the recruitment strategies of Amherst College and Boston College and
conducting qualitative focus groups with Boston public high school students. Then,
I discuss the results and major themes of my quantitative and qualitative research.

                                                                        APR-MAY-JUN 2019     45
Literature Review
                Very few studies investigate how high school recruitment strategies influ-
      ence the racial composition of a college student body. Atkinson and Pelfrey (2006)
      outline the effects of California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits the use of race or
      ethnicity in decisions to admit students, on California’s public university system. In
      response to the proposition, the University of California (UC) system undertook
      a number of initiatives in order continue to provide opportunities to underrepre-
      sented racial groups. UC reoriented and strengthened their recruitment strategy
      by targeting low-income schools, which would qualify more students of color since
      they are disproportionately represented in low-performing schools. The authors
      acknowledge that while their efforts resulted in a modest rebound in underrep-
      resented minority admissions, the increase was disproportionate, as it was almost
      completely comprised of Latinx students; black enrollment has struggled to re-
      bound since the proposition’s passage.
            When researching reasons why students do not attend certain colleges, one of
      the most obvious answers is cost. Numerous publications find that the largest ob-
      stacle preventing more students of color from attending elite colleges is financing.
      It is well known that college tuition has skyrocketed in recent decades, and private
      universities have become inaccessible to many on the basis of cost. Redd (2000)
      shows how in the 1980s and 1990s, colleges increased the use of discounting, or
      the decreasing of tuition to incentivize attending a university on the basis of need-
      based or merit-based aid, in order to meet enrollment goals. According to Redd,
      tuition discounting appears to have helped institutions increase their numbers of
      low-income undergraduates while sustaining the academic strength of the institu-
      tion. Not only do many prospective students elect to attend less elite schools with
      lower costs, but many students drop out of college because they cannot afford to
      pay tuition and other educational expenses. As such, one large factor that encour-
      ages lower-income students to attend highly-selective, high-cost colleges is finan-
      cial aid income threshold limits; schools like Amherst College, Harvard University,
      and Stanford University require no tuition if students’ families fall below a certain
      income threshold.
            Numerous studies conclude that black children and adolescents are more like-
      ly to be underserved by their K-12 schooling, which subsequently excludes them
      from the qualified applicant pool of these elite universities. Ford and Whiting
      (2011) investigate how students of color are recruited into gifted-education pro-
      grams, like the AP program, in K-12 schooling. The authors note that students of
      color are underrepresented in these programs; this underrepresentation is driven
      by low educator expectation for students of color, as teachers often under-refer

these students for gifted-education programs. Harper and Griffin (2011) note that
of 42 black males from low-income and working-class families who attended high-
ly selective colleges, the majority attributed their acceptances to local magnet high
schools that promoted strong college-preparatory measures.
Black – Those of both African-American and Afro-Caribbean descent.
Elite Institutions – Highly-selective colleges who admit 40 percent or less of all
their applicants.
Institution – A college or university offering a two or four-year degree.
Latinx – Denoting Latin-American racial identity.
Representation – Percent or portion of a student body made up by a specific

     In August 2018, I downloaded PDFs from both the Boston College and Am-
herst College websites that listed all of the high schools across the United States that
each would visit during the fall. During the fall of 2018, Amherst College visited
166 high schools, 6 college fairs, 3 independent organizations, and 4 community
colleges. During the fall of 2018, Boston College visited 637 high schools, 12 college
fairs, 9 independent organizations, and 0 community colleges. I transcribed each
recruiting destination into a Microsoft Excel document.
     Data on racial demographics at private high schools was obtained from the
2011-2012 Private School Universe Survey conducted the National Center for Ed-
ucational Statistics. Of the 75 private high schools that Amherst College visited, 63
were included in the 2011-2012 Private School Universe Survey (84 percent). Of
the 355 private high schools that Boston College visited, 294 were included in the
2011-2012 Private School Universe Survey (83 percent). Data on public high school
racial demographics was obtained from the census data on racial demographics by
zip code. I researched and transcribed the zip codes for all public high schools that
each college visited. I then matched racial and financial demographics from the
census data to the public high schools through the matching zip code. I deduce that
since public high schools are overwhelmingly comprised of students that live in
the same zip code that the high school is located in, the public high schools’ racial
compositions match those of the zip code.
     For my quantitative analysis, after transcribing the recruiting destinations of
the Amherst College and Boston College admissions teams, I researched each des-
tination to extract an address, a zip code, and a category of recruiting destination
(high school, fair, organization, or community college). After separating public and
private high schools, I used Microsoft Excel’s VLOOKUP function to match 2017

                                                                      APR-MAY-JUN 2019     47
census data to public high schools based on zip code and 2011-2012 Private School
      Universe Survey data to private high schools based on school name and zip code. I
      then exported this data set to Stata, where I conducted my statistical analyses.
           For my qualitative analysis, I first interviewed several Boston-area, college-ac-
      cess non-profits to learn more about their operations and objectives. Different or-
      ganizations assist high-school students in different aspects of the college applica-
      tion process, including standardized testing, financing, and selecting colleges based
      on interests and merits. I inquired with and received consent to collaborate with
      the Boston Higher Education Resource Center (Boston HERC), a non-profit that
      assists low-income students enrolled at an under-served Boston public high school
      and looking to attend a two or four-year college in the college application process.
      Although Boston HERC is Latino-led, I chose this organization because my con-
      versations with program directors made it clear that the majority of students in the
      program identify as black, Latinx, or afro-Latinx. I included all students, regardless
      of race, in my focus groups for multiple reasons. For one, since Latinx students face
      many of the same obstacles in attending and graduating from college as black stu-
      dents, I surmised that conversations with Latinx students about their college-appli-
      cation decisions would yield similar insights as conversations with black students.
      In addition, I believed including students with different racial identities in the focus
      groups would offer valuable insight into any differences between the experiences of
      students who identify as different races.
           With the partnership of Boston HERC, I conducted three focus groups with
      high school students currently in the college-application process. All students were
      enrolled at a Boston public school with a student body comprised of more than
      95 percent students of color. The Boston HERC instructors with whom I worked
      devoted a class period to each focus group; as such, focus groups were 46 minutes
      long. The focus groups were comprised of between 6 and 15 students, depending
      on the number of students on each class roster. Focus groups were informal discus-
      sions where I asked students about different factors that affected their preferences
      for certain colleges over others.


    I began by testing if the differences in the racial demographics of the Amherst
College and Boston College student bodies are statistically significant. I ran a pro-
portion test, which tests the significance of differences in proportions based on the
total number of observations; in this context, the test looks to see if differences in
racial representation at Amherst College and Boston College is significant when
considering the differences between the total number of undergraduates at each
school. The differences in the student body proportions is included in the Figure 1

Figure 1: Fall 2017 Undergraduate Student Body -

Racial Demographics

                                                 *** p
Private High Schools

      Figure 2: All Private High Schools

                                                                *** p
Public High Schools

Figure 3: All Public High Schools

                                                        *** p
Figure 4: Median Household Income & Percent of Individuals Below

      the Poverty Line

                                                            *** p
Combined Public and Private High Schools
    In order to obtain a holistic representation of the high schools that both Boston
College and Amherst College visit, I combined the public and private high school
data sets. In this combined data set, not all high school demographic data came
from the same source; while public school racial percentages were obtained from
census data, private school racial data was taken from the Private School Universe
Survey from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Figure 5: All High Schools, Both Public and Private

                                                      *** p
          My quantitative analysis shows that there is a racial recruitment gap that corre-
      sponds with a racial enrollment gap. Colleges that are disproportionately white run
      the risk of discouraging students of color from applying; schools with worse racial
      diversity often see students of color reporting heightened feelings of isolation and
      exclusion. Are Boston high school students aware that these local, highly-selective
      universities underrepresent black students? If so, does it dissuade them from ap-
      plying or attending, thereby creating a self-reinforcing cycle that sustains this black
          In order to find out, I conducted three focus groups with students currently
      enrolled at a Boston public high school. I asked students if they had heard any rep-
      utations about these elite, Boston-area colleges as being racially exclusive or unwel-
      coming. The high schools that these students attended are comprised of more than
      95 percent students of color; all focus groups included black and Latinx students,
      and students who identified as black and Latinx did not differ in their answers
      to questions about how their racial identity affected their decision-making in the
      college application process. While students did report hearing numerous rumors
      and reputations of racial-exclusivity about colleges, these reputations were not con-
      fined to elite, private colleges. In addition, racial identity does not appear to affect
      what colleges to which these students apply. Below are the themes from these focus
      group conversations. All students have been assigned a random alias in order to
      protect their identities.

      Difficulty of Admission
           When I asked high school students about the elite colleges in the greater Bos-
      ton Area–namely Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University,
      and Harvard University–many students first reaction was that these colleges are
      “impossible to get into.” I asked a group of senior students about how their peers
      generally spoke about these highly-selective local universities. One student–Pedro,
      who identifies as Latinx–answered, “Well, Northeastern just will take [only] one
      student per school in Boston,” indicating that Northeastern places quotas on the
      number students it accepts from each Boston public high school. In a separate fo-
      cus group, when I asked Alina, a senior who identifies as Latinx, if she was interest-
      ed in Northeastern, she laughed dismissively, stating, “that’s a reach school,” indi-
      cating she did not bother applying because she considered her admissions chances
      to be too low. Brianna, a senior who identifies as black, seconded this sentiment:
      “I feel like for me, I wouldn’t get in, so I just didn’t apply.” During the same group,
      Camila, a senior who identifies as Latinx, spoke about the difficulty of admission
      to Boston University, saying, “I heard no matter how hard you try you’re not going

to get in.” Many students view these elite schools as untouchable, so they do not
bother applying.

Racial Identity Plays Little to No Role in College Decisions
     One of my primary hypotheses followed that black underrepresentation at
elite, highly-selective universities in Boston produces reputations of racial exclu-
sion about these universities which, in turn, discourages high school students of
color to apply. Following this hypothesis, low black representation at these uni-
versities–which have remained virtually unchanged for the past three decades–
can be explained by this self-sustaining cycle. However, focus group participants
consistently reported that their racial identity plays little to no role in their col-
lege decisions. I asked a group of seniors, “when you think about your own racial
identity, do you think it has had an effect on where you guys decided to apply to
school?” Three students immediately shook their heads, and one student, Brianna,
confidently said “No.” I asked a different group of seniors how big of a factor a col-
lege’s racial diversity is in their decisions on whether to apply or attend that school.
Brandon, a senior who identifies as black, answered, “It’s not that big,” and Alina
followed by explaining that diversity is a preference but carries little weight on final
decisions: “It’s not humongous, but it’s like, I would prefer it.”
     After Brandon and Alina mentioned hearing rumors that professors at the
University of Massachusetts (Umass) Boston treat people of color poorly, I asked
if hearing that rumor made the school less appealing; Alina responded that the
rumors did not dissuade her from attending: “I [still] want to go there.” When I
asked her why the rumors of racism didn’t deter her excitement about the school,
Alina responded that while the racism did somewhat quell her excitement for the
school, rumors were not enough evidence to keep her from attending: “I would
say, even though [racism] happens to other people, I would want to go there for
myself, and then if [the racism] got to the point where I’m like, ‘okay, I definitely
don’t want to be here,’ then I would transfer.” She followed up by explaining that she
expects racism everywhere, and rumors about a certain campus doesn’t indicate
that racism isn’t found on other campuses: “Just because a few things happen, like
I feel like that happens everywhere no matter what. Not just certain schools, like
racism’s everywhere.”
     I didn’t understand why rumors about racism on college campuses did not
cause students to lose interest in that college; numerous students of color–includ-
ing many of my peers–reported feelings of discomfort and alienation after racist
incidents occurred at Boston College in 2017 and 2018. However, after continuing
to hear about rumors that are spread rampantly amongst these local high school
students, I deduced that consistent hearsay provokes skepticism about the rumors

                                                                      APR-MAY-JUN 2019     55
by the students. Rumors spread rampantly by word of mouth among high school
      students; Alexandra, a junior who identifies as black, mentioned hearing about a
      student who was cheated out of financial aid by her college. I asked Alexandra
      where she heard that story from, and she answered, “from my boyfriend’s sister.”
      Seniors Camila, Alina, and Brandon all heard rumors of racism on different cam-
      puses from a mom, a boss at work, and a “cousin’s boyfriend’s sister,” respectively.
      Numerous and at times conflicting reputations are spread by hearsay; these consis-
      tent and widespread rumors seem to generate skepticism regarding their truth, so
      high school students do not take rumors of racism as necessarily true.
           In addition to reporting that a campus’ racial composition plays only a minor
      role in college decisions, other conversations clearly indicated that a college’s aca-
      demics and prestige carry far more weight on application and enrollment decisions
      than racist reputations. After describing a racist incident that occurred on Boston
      College’s campus in December 2018 and then reporting that Boston College is only
      4 percent black, I presented a group of seniors with a scenario: “Knowing what I
      just said about how the best schools [in Boston] are really bad at diversifying, if I
      were to hand you an acceptance letter to BC, hypothetically, would you still want to
      go [to BC]? Would you say yes, because they’re so good? Or is that lack of diversity
      a deal breaker?” Students confidently answered that they would happily choose to
      attend; Alina said, “Yeah, I would [attend], to be honest,” while Brandon stated he
      would go in order to try to “take advantage of ” the opportunity. Another student,
      David, who identifies as Latinx, agreed that he would attend as long as the campus
      is “not too violent.” David specified: “It’s easy to ignore everything around me. It’s
      easy to ignore the racism, but it’s not easy to ignore the violence.” Alina agreed,
      stating she would attend “as long as it’s safe.” Alina added that she’s confident in her
      ability to ignore overt racism: “I’m good at, you know, blocking things out.” Only
      one student in the group, Camila, hesitated to immediately say she would attend,
      fearing that verbal racism may quickly escalate to violence: “what if it gets to a point
      where it gets violent? You never know what’s going to happen.” Despite her fears,
      Camila stated that she would consider the circumstances and “might attend.”
           This conversation illuminated the stark dilemma that many high school stu-
      dents of color face. These students, like many others, view elite colleges as vessels
      for opportunity and economic mobility. As a result, they are forced to choose be-
      tween the opportunities presented by the attainment of a degree from a highly-se-
      lective university and a safe, racially-inclusive campus. Given the option, these stu-
      dents–many of whom grew up in less wealthy neighborhoods of Boston–chose to
      pursue the opportunities presented by these universities even if it means enduring
      overt racism.

Indifference about Numbers of Other Students of Color on Campus
     High school students are not bothered by the prospect of attending a college
with small numbers of fellow students of color. Sofia, a senior who identifies as
Latinx, mentioned she saw very few Latinx students at Clark University, where she
will be attending in the fall. I asked her, “You said there weren’t many Latinos at
Clark–does that matter to you?” Sofia shook her head and shrugged, indicating it
did not matter to her. Later during that focus group, Carlos, the class instructor,
asked students, “Does this bother any of you that there’s small numbers of diverse
people in general at colleges?” Immediately, seniors Dillon, Pedro, and Jordan–who
identify as black, Latinx, and black, respectively–answered “no.” Carlos asked them
to explain why it didn’t bother them, and students responded that their race allows
them to differentiate themselves from others; Pedro said, “I guess it’s better for me,
and just [allows me to be] more noticeable.” Jordan spoke about the potential social
benefits: “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s the guy from (his Caribbean country of origin)!’
and they’re gonna be like ‘Oh! I know him!’”
     Numerous students of color enrolled at Boston College speak of the impor-
tance of having other students of color on campus; at a school like BC with rela-
tively few students of color, these students report increased emotions of isolation
and alienation. As a result, it puzzled me that these students were indifferent to the
racial diversity of their prospective colleges. However, after further contemplation,
these students’ apathy makes intuitive sense; seniors in high school are one of mil-
lions of applicants to numerous colleges, and over four years high school students
are told to find ways to differentiate themselves from other students in order to
appear unique. Elite colleges seem to only accept students with impeccable resumes
and unique experiences; after a long and arduous college-application process, high
school seniors are not likely focused on how they will fit in on a college campus but
rather how they will stand out. If racial identity is presented as a means for students
of color to differentiate themselves from other applicants and prospective students,
it makes intuitive sense that these students would embrace campuses that are ra-
cially homogeneous.

Reputations of Colleges are Not Correlated with their Prestige or Cost
     Prestigious universities like Boston College and Harvard University often have
reputations as being “stuck-up” or “preppy.” However, reputations about colleges
among the high school students that I spoke to were not correlated with prestige.
I asked a group of juniors if any schools have reputations among their peers and
them. While Boston College did have a reputation as being stuck-up, other, less-se-
lective schools had similar reputations; Alexandra stated that students at Umass
Dartmouth–a public, less-selective university–seemed to be stuck-up. Other stu-

                                                                     APR-MAY-JUN 2019     57
dents also reported hearing these reputations; despite low black representation and
      well-publicized racist incidents at elite universities in and around Boston, it was
      public, less-selective universities that had reputations as racially exclusive among
      these students. Camila stated that she heard from friends and family that Bridgewa-
      ter State University has a culture that promotes racial hate; speaking about a family
      friend, Camila said, “She really hates it there. She feels so uncomfortable, and she
      doesn’t feel welcome.” Camila also noted that at Umass Boston, her mom “faced
      an incident with an older white woman” where the woman made racist comments
      against Latinx individuals. Brandon confirmed hearing the reputation that Umass
      Boston is racially exclusive: “Yeah, I heard at Umass Boston there’s a lot of like stuff
      that’s racist. Even my boss at work, she’s a professor at Umass Boston, and she tells
      me sometimes people at the school don’t treat her well and she’s not well respected.”
      Despite these rumors, Brandon also mentioned that Umass Boston seems to do
      a good job at diversifying its student body. I asked students if any campuses they
      visited appeared, based on what they saw, to have diverse student bodies. Brandon
      replied, “Umass Boston is less white. It’s a mix.” Despite stating that Umass Boston
      has a reputation as racially exclusive, he mentioned that they have a racially diverse
      student body; this seemingly conflicting combination was not uncommon among
      high school students.

      Cost, Trust, and Inequality
           Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most important factor when choosing a college for
      students that I spoke to is cost. Alexandra stated, “I do want to go to college, but
      the thing that’s keeping me back is the money.” Taylor, a junior who identifies as
      black, seconded Alexandra’s statement, saying “Mhm. They make it way too much!”
      During the same session, Michael, a junior who identifies as white, stated that cost
      is often the factor that prevents his peers from attending college: “That’s why most
      kids here don’t want to go to college–because they don’t want to leave college and
      instantly be held down by the loans.” Taylor seconded this sentiment later in the
      session; I asked, “Do you know why those kids aren’t going to college? Is it most-
      ly because it’s so expensive?” Taylor answered, “Yeah.” She later said about cost,
      “That’s the number one thing that [my peers] talk about, when you talk about col-
      lege. It’s the first thing you hear.”
           The agony over financing college leads students to have very low trust in uni-
      versities. Michael stated that he heard multiple instances of colleges offering less
      financial aid than students needed: “Some colleges, they go give you some of that
      [aid] but they don’t give you your actual correct amount.” He continued, speaking
      about students being “gypped” and “robbed” by universities. Taylor agreed with
      Michael, stating that even with financial aid, colleges charge prices that students

can’t afford: “Oh yeah they do that. Like they’ll set an amount that they think that
you can expect to give to them. Like, I don’t make that much.” This sense of distrust
that is pervasive among students stems partly from a sense of inequity; Michael
stated that colleges “make it so expensive that regular and average kids can’t even
touch it.” If colleges are indifferent toward offering opportunities to lower-income
students, a feeling of distrust is instinctive.
     Finally, despite understanding that inequality is present, some high school stu-
dents see it as inevitable and thus accept it. When I asked if it bothered students
that higher incomes help students get accepted into more selective colleges, Cami-
la casually nodded, but no student passionately spoke out about the unfairness.
Camila added, “People deserve equal opportunities.” However, students seemed to
take the presence of inequality as granted.

     There is a clear and statistically-significant relationship between the racial
composition of the high schools that the two colleges in my case study visit and
the racial composition of the undergraduate student bodies at these colleges. Com-
pared with Amherst College, Boston College’s undergraduate student body has a
16.2 percent higher share of white students, 7.4 percent lower share of black stu-
dents, a 2.6 percent lower share of Latinx students, and 4.8 percent lower share of
Asian students. All of these differences at p
This study analyzed only two colleges in Massachusetts. In order to gain bet-
      ter insight into how outreach and recruitment by college admissions teams affects
      a school’s undergraduate demographics, more universities should be studied and
      compared. This study illustrates that low black representation at elite institutions
      of higher education is not solely the result of racial economic inequality in the
      U.S.; rather, universities bear substantial responsibility for which students attend
      their universities. While public policy cannot mandate that a university alter its
      recruitment strategies, public knowledge that recruitment strategies a) exist, and b)
      influence a college’s racial composition will persuade colleges to adhere to equitable
      recruitment strategies.
           The result that Boston College recruits from high schools with lower shares of
      students of color than another elite, local college with higher shares of students of
      color can be interpreted in multiple ways. On one hand, local high school students’
      excitement by the prospect of attending BC shows that BC’s present black under-
      representation is not set in stone; students of color will still choose to attend BC,
      which means that BC can improve the undergraduate student body’s representa-
      tion of students of color in the coming years. On the other hand, those who are pes-
      simistic about the BC administration’s motivation to change its racial composition
      may interpret high school students’ willingness to withstand overt racism to pursue
      the opportunities presented by a BC education as an absence of any incentive for
      the BC administration to improve its representation. If students of color still want
      to attend the university despite racist incidents and low numbers of other students
      of color, then the university may not feel any urgency to improve representation.
      Since high school students will choose the greater opportunities that elite universi-
      ties present even if it means withstanding discomfort or alienation as a result of low
      representation of students of color, the pattern of low recruitment of students of
      color–especially black students–will likely not end as a result of decreased demand
      by prospective students of color. These universities are in control of whom they
      recruit, and any positive change will only be a result of university decisions.

Works Cited

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Dungca, N. (2017, Dec 13). Lost on campus, as colleges look abroad. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://apps.


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Ford, D. Y., & Whiting, G. W. (2011). Beyond testing: Social and psychological considerations in recruiting and re-

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Harper, S. R., & Griffin, K. A. (2011). Opportunity beyond affirmative action: How low-income and work-

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Institute of Education Sciences. (2011-2012). Private School Universe Survey. National Center for Education Sta-


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McGill, A. (2015, Nov 23,). The missing black students at elite American universities. The Atlantic. Retrieved

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APPENDIX A: Proportion test of fall 2017 black enrollment, as a percent, at Boston
College (x) and Amherst College (y). Difference in proportions significant at p
APPENDIX C: Proportion test of fall 2017 Latino enrollment, as a percent, by
      Boston College (x) and Amherst College (y). Difference in proportions significant
      at p
APPENDIX E: T test of percentage of black students at private high schools that
Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited. Difference in
mean not significant at p
APPENDIX G: T test of percentage of Latinx students at private high schools that
      Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited. Difference in
      mean significant at p
APPENDIX H.a.: T test of percentage of private schools that Amherst College
or Boston College visited based on if they identify as a Catholic high school. The
dummy variable “Catholic” was created to identify if the school did not identify
as Catholic (Catholic = 0) or did identify as catholic (Catholic = 1). Difference in
mean significant at p
APPENDIX H.c: T test of percentage of white students at private high schools that
      Amherst College or Boston College visited based on if they identify as a Catholic
      high school. The dummy variable “Catholic” was created to identify if the school
      did not identify as Catholic (Catholic = 0) or did identify as catholic (Catholic = 1).
      Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX I: T test of percentage of black students in zip codes of public high
schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited.
Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX K: T test of percentage of Latinx students in zip codes of public high
      schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited.
      Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX M.a: T test of Median Household Incomes in zip codes of public high
schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited.
Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX N: T test of percent of individuals below the poverty line in zip codes
      of public high schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group
      2) visited. Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX O.a: T test of percentage of black students in zip codes of public high
schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited in
Massachusetts. Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX O.d: T test of percentage of Asian students in zip codes of public high
      schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited in
      Massachusetts. Difference in mean significant at not significant p
APPENDIX O.f: T test of percent of individuals below poverty line in zip codes of
public high schools that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2)
visited in Massachusetts. Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX Q: T test of percent of white students at high schools (both public and
      private) that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited. If the
      high school is public, the percentage was taken from the census data from the city
      where the high school is located. If the high school is private, the percentage was
      taken from the Private School Universe Survey, conducted by the National Center
      for Education Statistics. Difference in mean significant at p
APPENDIX S: T test of percent of Asian students at high schools (both public and
private) that Amherst College (group 1) and Boston College (group 2) visited. If the
high school is public, the percentage was taken from the census data from the city
where the high school is located. If the high school is private, the percentage was
taken from the Private School Universe Survey, conducted by the National Center
for Education Statistics. Difference in mean significant at p
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