At LSU, Racial Diversity Is a Financial Necessity

In Louisiana, a flagship university president argues the lack of black students on campus isn’t just a moral problem; it’s bad for the financial future of the university

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

BATON ROUGE, La. — A few weeks after Stewart Lockett made local headlines for becoming the first black student body president at Louisiana State University in nearly 30 years, the 21-year-old settled into his new office and began looking through the files that previous presidents had left behind.

He found old notes of inspiration and campaign buttons that promised to “Unite LSU” and “Put Students First.” He dug through the bottom drawer and pulled out a student government flyer from five years earlier. The brochure showed the 100 or so young people who’d served that semester. Lockett reached for a different flyer, then another. Every year, in every photo, nearly every student was white.

For years, LSU was the state’s whitest public university, but Lockett could feel things changing. Even as flagships elsewhere have grown less diverse, LSU has made slight, but important gains. Last fall, after the university’s admissions team worked to craft a more intentional recruiting plan, officials say they enrolled the most diverse freshman class in LSU’s nearly 160-year history. Though minority students here report high rates of discrimination, a growing number of African-Americans and Latinos are staying at the flagship for all four years.

In mid-January, as Lockett returned to the office for his final college semester, he fished out the old campaign flyers, and compared them to the photo he now uses as his computer background. His student government is about half-white, with a mix of black, Latino and Asian students rounding out the team.

Stewart Lockett (right, grey shirt) leads a meeting of the student government executive team in late January. His team is the most diverse student government the university has ever had. Casey Parks/The Hechinger Report

“I’m not going to lie,” Lockett said, his eyes squinting as he grinned. “It’s pretty cool. It’s been a huge shift, and we’re really proud of it.”

Still, the university is far whiter than the state it serves, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of the most recent national data. In 2016, 44 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduates were black. But that fall, black students made up just 13 percent of LSU’s freshman class. At 31-points, the gap is one of the three widest in the nation, tied with the University of South Carolina for second place, behind Ole Miss, with a 39-point gap.Updated data for all 50 states, showing the disparities between African-American and Latino high school graduates and African-American and Latino freshman enrollment at flagship universities, can be seen here.

Although the numbers look bad, Louisiana is actually improving while neighboring states regress. Flagship universities in Alabamaand Missouri, for example, are enrolling fewer African-American students and face a widening gap between the percentage of black students graduating high school and the percentage entering state colleges.

LSU President F. King Alexander believes these universities are charting their own demise. Children of color make up the majority of public school students under age 18, and their share of the population will only grow, even as the total number of college students is projected to drop by 15 percent over the next decade. At the same time, state budget cuts mean public institutions must rely more heavily on revenue from tuition and fees than on taxpayer dollars. State data shows LSU’s undergraduate enrollment has declined each of the last three years to 25,235 last fall.

“If we don’t pay attention to demographic trends, many of our institutions are going to be left out in the cold for decades,” Alexander said. To remain financially viable in the long term, he knows his school has to enroll a greater number of students who look like Lockett.

Long before Lockett knew where he’d go to college, he knew what he wanted to study.

“I was really good in physics,” he said. “My friends would get annoyed because I would do really well in the class. My teacher specifically made the class hard, and she told my mom, ‘He should definitely look into something in the STEM majors.’”

Lockett researched science and technology fields his sophomore year and decided on bioengineering, a discipline that combines science and math to study living things. LSU was one of only three schools in Louisiana that offered the major.

Like other flagships across the country, LSU is, by many standards, the best public school in the state. It has the state’s largest university endowment and the highest graduation rate for both black and white students. Its football, baseball and basketball teams are perennial contenders, and its faculty includes internationally renowned researchers.

The university was just an hour and a half away from Lockett’s home in New Iberia, a midsized Cajun town that is roughly half black and half white. But Lockett said his guidance counselors never encouraged him to apply to LSU. Instead, he said, they gave him brochures for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a nearby institution whose population is a fifth African-American, and they told him about Xavier University, a historically black school in New Orleans, “because I was premed, and I was black.”

Lockett knew Xavier was ranked first in the nation for the number of African-Americans it sent to medical school, but he didn’t want to be “the typical student.” He wanted to meet people from different backgrounds, pursuing other majors, so he ignored his counselors’ advice and decided to visit LSU and Tulane University.

He admired Tulane’s reputation — the New Orleans private school is the highest-ranked Louisiana university on U.S. News and World Report’s list — but he didn’t feel at home when he toured in 2014. Tulane didn’t seem as connected to the Louisiana community, he said, and the student body appeared overwhelmingly white. Only 9 percent of the university’s 8,290 undergraduates that year were black — roughly 750 students. The freshman class was only 3 percent black.

Lockett had grown up hearing about LSU. His mother attended for a year in the late 1970s before deciding the university wasn’t right for her. She transferred to Southern University, a historically black university on the other side of Baton Rouge, where she met Lockett’s father and earned a degree in marketing. But Lockett’s older brother had enrolled at LSU in 2010, liked the school, and was close to finishing his bachelor’s in electrical engineering when Lockett visited in the spring of 2014.

A tour guide walked Lockett past the university’s 175-foot clock tower, and took him to visit Mike, the live tiger that serves as LSU’s mascot. Lockett had never seen anything quite like the school’s 2,000-acre campus, but what impressed him most were the students. Everyone seemed to be smiling. LSU was far whiter than Lockett’s hometown, but the flagship felt blacker than Tulane, he thought. At LSU, he’d be one of 3,000 black undergraduate students — part of “a community within a community.”

Black students have been applying for enrollment here since at least 1938, when the Supreme Court ruled in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada that states that did not provide graduate programs for African-Americans must admit black students into white schools. Dozens of young black people tried to enroll in LSU’s law, medical and undergraduate programs, but administrators successfully blocked their entry, relying on the “separate but equal” doctrine, a precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, a Louisiana case. Over time, after African-Americans successfully gained entry to flagships elsewhere, LSU administrators relented and, under court order, allowed a handful of black students to enroll.

Before Lockett, only two African-Americans had ever led the student body. The first, Kerry Pourciau, attended LSU with white supremacist David Duke. Pourciau took office in 1972, two years before the U.S. Department of Justice sued Louisiana, accusing the state of operating separate higher education systems for black and white students, a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

State education officials eventually agreed to diversify the flagship and send more money to Louisiana’s historically black colleges, but U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz, Jr. twice found that Louisiana’s universities had remained segregated.

By the time Alexander became president in 2013, four decades had passed since the federal government sued to diversify LSU. Still, black students made up less than 11 percent of LSU’s student body.

Flagship universities across the country have struggled to diversify their ranks. For the third year in a row, a Hechinger Report analysis of national data has found more than a third of U.S. states with at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of their public high school graduates who are African-American and the percentage of their flagships’ freshman class who are African-American.

Alexander believed that many flagships were “moving in the wrong direction.” Since 2010, more than a third of state flagship universities have posted declines in the percentage of African-American freshman they enrolled. In Mississippi, the number of black freshmen declined by more than 100 students and 6 percentage points between 2010 and 2016. Ole Miss did add black freshmen in 2015, but black enrollment at both the universities of Alabama and Missouri have continued to fall.

“Universities need to quit worrying about U.S. News and prestige and start worrying about their mission,” Alexander said. “I’ve got way too many of my colleagues that are chasing things that mean nothing. They end up reducing opportunities that they are supposed to be providing for their state.”

Louisiana and its crown jewel university have had particular challenges in enrolling black students. The state has the lowest rate of black college graduates in the country; only 15 percent of the state’s African-American adults have a bachelor’s. And its universities remain largely segregated: Nearly half of Louisiana’s black college students attend an HBCU. The only predominantly white college whose population in the fall of 2017 was at least a quarter black was Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

LSU long remained the state’s whitest school, in part because admissions requirements eliminated most black students from consideration. Since 2001, when standardized test standards were first imposed at the flagship, LSU has rejected any applicant who earned less than a 22 on the ACT. The average score for black students in Louisiana last year was 17.3.

The university is also one of the most expensive in a state where one in three African-Americans live below the federal poverty line. Only 20 percent of LSU undergraduates use Pell Grants — compared to 37 percent of the state’s overall undergraduate population.

Statewide budget cuts have forced college administrators to find other sources of money; since the Great Recession, tuition has risen at a higher rate in Louisiana than in any other state. A year at the flagship now costs $28,600 a year — $844 more than the annual median income for black families in Louisiana.

Almost as soon as Alexander arrived in 2013, he began pushing the university to do better. He’d worked the previous eight years as president of California State University-Long Beach, an institution where the population was less than 20 percent white, and he’d grown up hearing stories about how his grandfather helped desegregate Kentucky schools in the 1960s. Alexander believed diversifying was the right, moral move. He also saw a financial imperative. The state has cut its contribution to LSU in half since the recession. Nationwide, Alexander believed, the only real gains in enrollment were going to come from underrepresented communities.

Early in his tenure, Alexander worked on a summit addressing black male achievement, joined the 100 Black Men civic organization and began serving as the faculty liaison to the university’s branch of the NAACP. After only four black students rushed a fraternity or sorority in the fall of 2013, Alexander urged Greek leaders to “be forward thinking.”

The number of black and Latino students creeped up in the years after Alexander took over. When Lockett enrolled in 2015, his was the first undergraduate class with at least 3,000 black students — a total that comprised 12.15 percent of the student body.

But the university’s overall enrollment, which has jumped up and down over the last decade, began to decline the next year. Alexander believed the university could push harder and, in 2017, when he went looking for a new chief enrollment officer for undergraduate admissions, Alexander chose Jose Aviles, a Latino who had been the first in his family to attend college.

Enrollment dropped by more than 700 students between 2016 and 2017, and when Aviles arrived on campus that fall, he said he found “great anxiety” about the numbers. University officials longed to add ethnic minorities and other students from low-income and rural backgrounds, Aviles said, but LSU’s admissions team had the same problem he’d seen at other institutions. They didn’t know “how to do the work of diversity.”

As part of its desegregation lawsuit, the federal government required LSU to submit proof of its minority-recruiting efforts for 20 years. University officials submitted as evidence ads they’d placed in newspapers and on radio stations. They hired ‘other-race’ liaisons and sent generic form letters to black students who’d performed well on the ACT.

But Aviles had learned in five years of diversifying campuses in New York and Delaware that brochures are not enough.

“You can’t just set up a table,” Aviles said. “It’s about making relationships, being visible in some of these rural communities or in New Orleans, communities that are really going to need a significant presence from our end in order to provide students that clear understanding of not just that we want them but that there is a picture of success for them here.”

In the past, Aviles said, LSU’s admissions team had skipped schools with low performance measures. Recruiters rarely made trips to the state’s far reaches, to schools where few, if any, students might be considering the state flagship. Over time, fewer and fewer students came to LSU from Caddo, Ouachita and East Baton Rouge parishes — all of which have significant black populations.

“We have to roll up our sleeves and get into these schools,” Aviles said. Traveling to distant parts of the state might be more expensive, he said, but he argued it will cost the state more if young people there don’t earn degrees and can’t join the middle class workforce.

Last year, as LSU’s admissions team worked to craft a more intentional recruiting plan, the university decided to try something that many other flagships already do. Instead of eliminating students who scored too low on the ACT, admissions officers evaluated students using what’s known as “holistic admissions.” In that type of review, university staff consider recommendations, essays and other information to decide whether a student might do well at LSU, even if the student performed poorly on a standardized test.

“We deepened what we understand as merit, who deserves the opportunity to participate,” Aviles said. “If you’re just selecting students on board scores, those things alone are not enough to determine whether a student can be successful on your campus or not. Resilience or grit, students who are going to get up every day no matter how many times they are knocked down, you can look for that.”

At 31-points, the gap between black high school graduates and black freshmen at the flagship university is one of the three widest in the nation, tied with the University of South Carolina and behind the 39-point gap at Ole Miss.

Some schools, including the University of Florida, haven’t made any meaningful diversity gains since adopting holistic reviews, and some researchers have found the practice is more likely to benefit poor white students than Latinos or African-Americans. In Texas, where the flagship won a Supreme Court decision that allowed it to continue using race as part of its holistic process, huge gaps remain between the number of high school graduates who are black or Latino and the number of those students admitted.

But Aviles and Alexander said the new policy, coupled with expanded scholarship offerings and a push to recruit in neglected communities, is paying off at their school. Among the 5,809 freshmen LSU enrolled last fall, 433 were admitted by exception. A third of those were from low-income families, and more than half came from rural districts. The number of black students in the freshman class jumped from 587 to 889 from 2017 to this fall, a 51 percent increase. The number of Latinos rose, too, from 313 to 421, a 35 percent gain.

Getting more black and Latino students on campus was important progress, Aviles said, but if university officials want to retain minority students, Aviles believes they have to show that opportunities exist here for Latinos and African-Americans. Students need to believe they can rush any fraternity, run for homecoming queen or serve on the student government.

Stewart Lockett is LSU’s third black student body president; the first served almost 50 years ago. “It’s definitely a pressure because I want to leave a good legacy,” Lockett said. “I want other students, not only black students, but all students to see a black student is just as capable in a leadership position.”
Stewart Lockett is LSU’s third black student body president; the first served almost 50 years ago. “It’s definitely a pressure because I want to leave a good legacy,” Lockett said. “I want other students, not only black students, but all students to see a black student is just as capable in a leadership position.” Casey Parks/The Hechinger Report

When older students began asking Lockett to run for student body president, many did so, he said, because they thought his win “would be great for campus.”

Lockett “wasn’t just the best black candidate,” said Drake Boudreaux, a 2017 graduate who helped recruit Lockett. “He was the best candidate overall in his class. He’s really charismatic and super passionate. You can tell when he’s talking to people that he cares about them.”

But Boudreaux, who is white, and others recognized the potential impact of Lockett’s win. “He had this diversity factor that I think a lot of people at the university were really yearning for,” Boudreaux said. “It made him even more of an attractive candidate. He brought a whole slew of unique experiences that made him refreshing.”

Lockett came from a small town and wasn’t “obnoxiously wealthy,” Boudreaux said. Most past presidents have been in fraternities or sororities; Lockett isn’t. Even his bioengineering major made him diverse: Many students come to school politics from the humanities departments.

Still, Lockett knows what his victory meant in a state that fought to keep students like him out of LSU. He receives dozens of Facebook messages each month from strangers who say they are proud of his win. He’s heard from alumni who survived years of racism on campus and from others who, like his mother, transferred out to pursue a degree at a more welcoming college.

He understands why black parents pull him aside after panels or school tours to ask for “the real story.” They want their children to feel safe. They want to know if LSU is a different university than the one that existed when they were young.

Lockett tells them “straight up.” He has loved his time at the flagship, but he knows other students haven’t had the same experience. In a campus climate survey conducted Lockett’s sophomore year, a quarter of the black respondents said they did not feel “part of the family” at the university, and another third said they didn’t feel part of the community. The majority of black employees and students said they had sometimes felt uncomfortable on campus because of comments about their race. Nearly half of the Latino students and employees reported discomfort due to race-related comments.

One Friday early this semester, Lockett stepped outside his office to talk to the dozen black and Latino students planning multicultural events and new legislation aimed at better serving the university’s minorities.

Two of the students — Lauren Roach and Priscilla Velazquez — said they had joined student government in part because of Lockett’s election. The women now lead the organization’s diversity committee, but both said they’d initially felt alone at LSU.

Roach, a junior studying digital advertising, grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland — “where African-Americans were always in the majority,” she said. She’d fallen in love with LSU because of its award-winning gymnastics program and its Manship School of Mass Communication, but she’d been surprised to find so few black students when she arrived.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged here,” she said.

Velazquez, a junior kinesiology major from the outskirts of Dallas, told Roach she’d also struggled to adjust after leaving a majority Latino high school for a predominantly white university.

“When I came here my freshman year, I didn’t have a community,” she said. “I’m Mexican, and until this past summer, I didn’t have a professor who looked like me. I felt like you were either white or you were black, there was no in between.”

diversity on college campuses
Stewart Lockett (center) and other student government leaders meet in late January with a reporter for The Daily Reveille, an LSU-student newspaper, to talk about their hopes for a new library. The 60-year-old Middleton Library has suffered water damage from a leak. Casey Parks/The Hechinger Report

Lockett will graduate in May, but he hopes to use his final months on campus working so future students don’t feel what Roach and Velazquez did their freshman years.

As lunch neared, Lockett headed to meet with a reporter from the student paper. The interview turned toward Lockett’s push for a new building to replace the 60-year-old Middleton Library, which has suffered water damage from a leak.

“I’m very serious about academics,” Lockett said. “So it’s a little personal for me.”

Lockett didn’t bring it up during the interview, but the library is named after Troy Middleton, a former university president who once bragged that LSU had done more to promote segregation than any other Louisiana institution. Across the street, tucked into a folder labeled ‘Negro problem,’ are dozens of letters Middleton sent, promising community members he would keep black students out. Hundreds had applied, hoping to study law and accounting, but Middleton maintained hope that the state’s flagship would remain segregated.

“I do not want Negro students at LSU,” Middleton wrote to a Shreveport admiral in 1956.

Eventually, Lockett told the student reporter, he hopes the library will be demolished and replaced with something nicer, a building with collaborative space, where everyone feels welcome.

This story about diversity on college campuses was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. Meredith Kolodner contributed to this report.The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

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Casey Parks
Casey Parks is a staff reporter covering New Orleans and Mississippi. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she spent a decade at The Oregonian, where she wrote about race and LGBTQ issues and was a finalist for The Livingston Award. She was the assistant editor of The Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press and the inaugural winner of the New York Times' Win a Trip to Africa with Nicholas Kristof contest. In high school, she worked before and after classes at The Alexandria Daily Town Talk in Central Louisiana. There, she fielded angry calls on the circulation desk in the morning and retyped press releases in the afternoon. The editors rewrote her first story, but she still keeps a copy of it in her desk. She earned a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she also studied race, poverty and education.