How Elite Private Colleges Might Serve Black Students Better

A Q&A with David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College

David Oxtoby, the president of Pomona College, in Calif., poses on campus Tuesday, August 14, 2007. Photo: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

With racial unrest sweeping college campuses and the nation’s highest court contemplating a lawsuit that could ban the use of race as a factor in college admissions, how universities admit and eventually serve students of color is under the spotlight.

In the 10 years since David Oxtoby took the helm of Pomona College, a highly selective small liberal arts college 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, its enrollment of black and Hispanic students has grown and the number of low-income students has more than doubled. But the gap in the school’s black-white graduation rate has also widened.

Last month, a group of students identifying themselves as “marginalized students who have not been served by Pomona College” presented Oxtoby with a list of demands – including the creation of cultural spaces, increased funding for mental health services and a pledge to increase faculty diversity – demands that will be familiar to anyone following the ongoing campus protests sprouting up around the country.

At the same time, Pomona was part of a coalition of private schools that filed a brief supporting affirmative action in the Supreme Court case of Fisher v. Texas, which could ban the consideration of a student’s race during the admissions process. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, brought the suit on the grounds that she was unfairly denied admissions to the University of Texas at Austin – the state’s flagship university. Elite public schools like the University of California, Berkeley and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where the number of black and Hispanic students plummeted after their states banned affirmative action, could be a window into the broad implications the case could have on higher education.

Related: Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

Oxtoby sat down with The Hechinger Report and talked about how the protests and the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court could affect private schools like his.

Pomona, so far, has been spared the kinds of protests seen at schools across the country, including a college in your consortia, Claremont McKenna College. Is there something Pomona did differently?

We had a group of students present me with a list of demands, some were things we knew needed to be fixed, more counselors or better access to mental health, for example. They also asked that I meet with students from a different affinity group every week. It’s been enlightening.

I’ve heard from undocumented students about their particular concerns. How am I going to study abroad? Turns out don’t even try to study in France but Germany is possible. They’re also thinking a lot about what kinds of options they’re going to have for careers and graduate schools after, and we’re developing a career services team that is ready for them.

But I wouldn’t take credit for the lack of protests. Some of the things Claremont McKenna is being criticized for, we could be fairly criticized for as well. We had over a thousand students marching around all the Claremont Colleges, it was aimed at all of us and it should have been. I would say we’ve really worked hard, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about diversity, we’ve had faculty workshops on micro-aggressions, but I wouldn’t point to those and say we’ve solved the problem.

So what’s the solution – how do you balance free speech and creating a welcoming community for everyone?

I think that’s a false dichotomy. Saying freedom of speech is a core value and we want open discussion and open dialogue and we want people to say controversial things is not in conflict with wanting to support students and make students who may feel vulnerable feel welcome. It’s about educating students who might say unintentionally or intentionally racist things, but also building other students’ resilience. I support safe open spaces, these aren’t spaces just for only this or that category of students, but spaces for conversations. I do have some concerns about trigger warnings. A professor saying we are about to discuss some difficult issues, that’s a good thing to do. But saying maybe you shouldn’t read this, that worries me. But overall I’m optimistic, this is a moment of change, people are being open about challenges. This is a time for real dialogue about difficult issues. And especially at a small college, there are opportunities for the community to talk about really difficult questions inside and outside of classrooms.

These protests also come at a time when the Supreme Court is taking up the affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas, yet again. Do you have any thoughts about the case? How might it affect colleges like Pomona?

We joined a group of private institutions that filed an amicus brief in favor of Texas. We are very different institutions than Texas, so the specific arguments don’t really affect us, but we want to be able to continue to have a holistic admissions process. We want to be able to take race and ethnicity into account. It affects the kinds of experiences our students have during college.

We could live with a narrow decision. Private institutions do have considerable flexibility but a broad decision could lead to potential government rules for all schools that receive federal aid.

When we look at a student’s application we code a lot of things on their file, family status, income status, type of school they are coming from, and yes, race, if we aren’t allowed to do that anymore that’s going to change the outcome. Socioeconomic status isn’t a complete substitute. We want first generation, low-income white students too but it’s not exactly the same thing. I wish it were true that a middle-income black student had the same advantages as that low-income white student.

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

With 20 percent of students identifying as black or Hispanic and 17 percent of students receiving Pell grants (federal aid given to low-income students), Pomona is more diverse than many of its peer schools, which are admittedly some of the whitest and most affluent in the country. How intentional was this? I imagine it’s easier to get these students to Southern California, than say Middlebury, Vermont.

We’ve grown our Pell numbers from 8 percent to 17 percent since 2003, 20 percent was our initial goal. That goal could go up, but we don’t want to become one of those bifurcated campuses of rich and poor and nothing in the middle. Our race and ethnicity numbers have also changed tremendously.

Most of that was intentional, but when we decided it was a goal, we definitely took advantage of our location. We had about 8 percent of students receiving Pell when I arrived in 2003. We recruited to move that needle, but it is easier for us to recruit these students to Southern California than to say, Grinnell, Iowa.

One area where we have been particularly strategic is undocumented students, and we have one of the higher numbers. Some schools can’t take them, but we treat them just like U.S.-born students. We have also been working with the Posse Foundation, Questbridge and KIPP. As a small college we can’t possibly reach everyone so we’ve been working on these kinds of partnerships, they’ve been the engines of our growth in these areas. There are colleges that say they are need-blind but they don’t send admissions counselors to the students with the most need.

Are there other ways you can increase diversity? There was recently an op-ed in the student newspaper that argued one of your admissions essay questions could disadvantage poor applicants.

I think that was a bit patronizing. Asking students to think about what kind of first year courses they would design that makes them excited about the breadth of a liberal arts education is something a low-income student from a difficult high school can answer just as well as students from the best private schools in the country, and we’ve in fact seen that to be the case. But we are constantly looking at our admissions process. We don’t want a completely generic application, but we also don’t want to go overboard and have five lengthy essays. It’s a bit elitist and we know students are looking at a lot of schools.

It’s kind of like the debate over using the SAT. Some schools say we’re noble, we don’t require the SAT. We don’t have a sound bite like that. We consider the SAT as well as anything else you send. When a kid who comes from a school without much prep, we take that into account, but if you are a kid in a really small town and score a 1500 that’s how we are going to find you. The anti-SAT movement has some elitism to it, if you come from a premier school you are much more likely to hear from us and we are much more likely to hear from you.

Related: How one top college bucked a trend to take more poor and nonwhite applicants

While Pomona has a higher percentage of black students than many other top liberal arts colleges, the black graduation rate – at 82 percent -is much lower when compared to schools like Williams and Amherst – with 90 percent rates. Why do you think that is? What have you been doing about that?

That’s a recent change. A few years ago we weren’t seeing that. We’ve been making some changes that we hope show up in the data. We are really working on supporting students in math and science, including black students, who come into college with plans to succeed in those fields. We are also using the Posse model for kids not in the program, grouping students together and linking them with faculty and student mentors.

I will say, we’ve heard that at some schools a large amount of black students come from prep schools, that’s more true in New England. I asked our dean of admissions how many of our black students come from prep schools. He said about 10 percent, which may be a factor. We take some students from programs like Prep for Prep, but we have a much more diverse pipeline. That’s been a change for us from, say, 10 years ago.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.