Harnessing Demographic Shifts for Racial Justice in Higher Education

Illinois must recommit to its minority- and Hispanic-serving institutions.
By Isaura Pulido


Image by Sean Benham on Flickr.

Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, many college and university presidents issued official statements against racism and injustice. With few exceptions, most of those statements were, as Carnegie Mellon University professors Jason England and Richard Purcell characterized them, “toothless.” Still, higher education invoked more of the same through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that, despite the expenditure of millions of dollars over decades, have largely failed to produce equity in recruitment, retention, and completion for racially marginalized students. As New York University journalism professor Pamela Newkirk has noted, “Few presidents appear willing to go beyond symbolic gestures to substantially expand the pool of underrepresented students and faculty of color. . . . The trend is moving toward a flattened diversity-for-all mantle that embraces diversity of all kinds while ignoring the history and legacy of structural racial disadvantage baked into the educational system.” In essence, leaders use the language of DEI to make prospective students and members of the public feel good without substantively transforming their institutions to achieve racial justice.

On the heels of civil unrest and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) released in 2021 its new strategic plan, centering on equity and renewing its commitment to underserved Black and Latinx students. Data on ten-year enrollments between 2011 and 2021 at the twelve public, four-year institutions of higher education in Illinois indicate that some primarily white institutions (PWIs), also the most well-resourced in the state, are increasingly enrolling Black and Latinx students. Has higher education finally leaned into racial justice? If so, to what extent will the Supreme Court’s recent decision effectively ending race-conscious admissions thwart these efforts? Or, are contemporary enrollment trends part of strategic moves toward self-preservation by institutions in a decade of seismic enrollment decline? Now that some PWIs seemingly intend to attract these students, how are less-resourced, long-established historically minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) faring as more competitive schools vie for Black and Latinx students?        

Like many other colleges and universities nationwide, Illinois’s public institutions have bemoaned years of declining enrollments following a high point in 2010. Reasons cited for the decline include demographic shifts, the ever-increasing costs of postsecondary education, students leaving the state to attend college elsewhere, and, most recently, the impact of COVID-19. These are undoubtedly substantive concerns that continue to be addressed at the state and local levels. At Northeastern Illinois University, my home institution, administrators offered similar explanations for our plunging enrollment. Northeastern is located in Chicago, one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest and the country. It is an MSI and the oldest four-year, public HSI in the state. Northeastern has two campus locations born from struggles to expand access to higher education among Black and brown communities. The El Centro Campus was established in the 1960s to serve the Latinx community. As Chicago is home to the country’s fifth-largest Latinx population, a group whose college attendance has increased nationally by 48 percent since 2010, this campus is poised to attract a rapidly expanding pool of prospective students. A second campus, the Carruthers Center, is located in the Bronzeville community, also known as the city’s Black Metropolis, and houses an academic program that prepares students to “participate fully in the richness of African and African-American cultures.” Although the Black population has declined in the city, a well-established history of anti-Blackness in Chicago largely excluded this population from higher education long ago so there is still potential for increasing enrollment of Black students. Narratives that broadly invoke a declining college-age population as a rationale for low-enrollment without outlining the nuances of the demographic shifts related to race and ethnicity often fail to capture the totality of local demographics and institutional realities.

An analysis of ten-year enrollment data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, tracking student head counts, confirms that shifting demographics have significantly contributed to enrollment decline at four-year public colleges and universities—specifically, among white students. The four-year public institutions in Illinois experienced a 9 percent enrollment decrease, with 18,912 fewer students in 2021 than in 2011. The loss is consistent with nationwide trends that, in recent years, are skewed partly by enrollment declines related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, white student enrollment at all public institutions in Illinois dropped by 30 percent during the same period—a significant decline. Particularly affected were institutions where whites comprised most of the student population as both a number and a percentage. For example, between 2011 and 2021, Northern Illinois University saw the most significant decline of white students of any state institution, with 7,025 fewer students, or a 47 percent decrease. Southern Illinois University experienced the second most significant decline in white students, with 5,618 fewer students—a 44 percent decrease. Western Illinois University came in third, with 4,778 white students—a 53 percent decline. Unsurprisingly, the ambiguity surrounding “shifting demographics” as a rationale suggests that prospective white students—historically the core target group for higher education—are disappearing. And, perhaps, we might not want to say that out loud.       

Despite current trends, two institutions grew in overall enrollment during the decade analyzed, and a third maintained relative stability. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois’s flagship institution, increased enrollment by 27 percent; the University of Illinois at Chicago, by 22 percent. Enrollment data on these two institutions indicate an inverse pattern between white student population decline and growing numbers of Latinx, Black, Asian, and international students and those identifying as two or more races. Specifically, UIUC more than doubled its Latinx population (up by 127 percent) and enrollment of students identifying as two or more races (up by 105 percent) and almost doubled its Asian population (up by 96 percent). UIUC experienced modest enrollment growth for Black students, increasing this population by 35 percent. The numbers of international students grew by 41 percent. Similarly, UIC doubled its Latinx population, which grew by 103 percent, and increased the enrollment of students identifying as two or more races by 83 percent. UIC’s Black student population increased by 20 percent and its Asian student population grew by 24 percent. International student enrollment increased by 94 percent.

A third institution, Illinois State University, also bucked the trend, albeit differently, and managed to hold enrollment decline at 5 percent, well below the national and state averages. ISU stands as an anomaly among institutions for managing to minimize enrollment decline even though white students comprised a large majority of the student population (82 percent) in 2011. Like UIUC and UIC, ISU stabilized enrollment declines by attracting underrepresented student subgroups. ISU doubled its Latinx population, which grew by 103 percent, and increased its Asian population by 35 percent, while the number of students identifying as two or more races grew by 59 percent. Its international student population increased by 43 percent. Notably, ISU experienced the largest growth in Black student enrollment of any institution, a 60 percent increase.

It is doubtful that the trends at UIUC, UIC, and ISU are coincidental. It stands to reason that wise leadership draws on long-term population trends to develop institutional visions, missions, and strategic enrollment plans. Additionally, UIUC, UIC, and ISU are among the best-resourced universities in Illinois, allowing them to attract any student population they desire with targeted incentives. Even so, enrollment data cannot tell us if these institutions were motivated by an imperative for racial justice or if they “expanded their market” for the sake of self-preservation. Higher education leaders must ask if targeted enrollment efforts can lead us toward racial justice. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which has long tracked population trends among high school graduates, “Increasing diversification only adds more weight to the imperative for postsecondary education to better support students who have traditionally been underserved and address systemic inequities.” Thus, PWIs must foster thriving, culturally sustaining campus climates that validate and honor the multiple identities of students of color and support their retention and completion. Finally, if indeed this enrollment trend is a path toward equity, will the types of education students experience contribute to developing justice-centered communities or exacerbating current inequities?

The Elephants in the Room

The calls for racial justice amplified in 2020 will only get louder. Such calls in Illinois and elsewhere make it imperative to examine closely institutions like Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago State University, which have historically served Black and Latinx communities. Chicago State, an MSI, has long been regarded as a preeminent historically Black university in the Midwest, with Black students comprising 79 percent of its student population in 2011. Both universities provide much-needed access to students and populations that may not otherwise attend college. Yet during the last decade they have experienced declining enrollment—by 67 percent for Chicago State and 44 percent for Northeastern—wholly out of proportion with national and state trends. Moreover, they were the only two public institutions in the state to experience declines in Latinx students at a time when college attendance for that population was at an all-time high. Additionally, Black student enrollment declined at both institutions as a percentage of their overall populations—by 41 percent at Northeastern and, glaringly, by 70 percent at Chicago State.

These trends result from many factors—including budget cuts at Northeastern and Chicago State, which both serve large numbers of students from vulnerable populations disproportionately burdened by rising tuition costs, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must also consider the turmoil that has engulfed several administrations at both universities, including allegations of mismanagement, multiple votes of no confidence, and turnover of vital high-level positions resulting in seemingly endless interim appointments.

Now that several PWIs in Illinois appear intent on recruiting Black and Latinx students, some observers have called for the “creative destruction” of ostensibly failing MSIs to consolidate higher education spending. This thinking, rooted in a neoliberal ideology that centers on markets and competition, suggests that the “best” institutions should survive while those “failing” should perish. However, decades of neoliberal education reforms in Chicago, including the closing and privatization of public schools, demonstrate that market reforms will not get us closer to racial justice.

Northeastern and Chicago State—two universities that gave access to Black and Latinx students when PWIs remained largely uncommitted to recruiting significant numbers of underrepresented students—will become increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, ultimately vanish. Nonetheless, many things must change if these institutions are to regain the confidence of prospective students and communities, starting with leadership and institutional capacity. A radical revitalization of Northeastern and Chicago State would be a bold act toward racial justice by the state of Illinois. If Illinois is serious about racial justice, it must expand its commitment to the two institutions historically poised to embody Black and Latinx excellence in higher education. The governor’s office, the Black and Latinx caucuses of the Illinois state legislature, the IBHE, and the universities’ respective boards of trustees should work together to secure substantial investments in both institutions that mitigate the damage of a decade of divestment, mismanagement, and enrollment declines. Additionally, as the Black and Latinx caucuses of the Illinois General Assembly are charged with addressing the needs of these specific Illinois populations through legislative action, they should call for legislative hearings to expose institutional weaknesses and work with Chicago communities to revitalize enrollment. Community members can provide guidance and oversight to ensure that university leaders understand and commit to the students these institutions have historically served. Leaders must have the skills and demonstrated experience in Black and Latinx communities, along with relationships in those communities, to turn the tide on enrollment.

Undoubtedly, the face of institutions in Illinois and elsewhere will continue to change over the next ten years and beyond as ongoing demographic changes result in smaller but more diverse cohorts of potential college applicants. That fact alone will not make our higher education system more racially just. Revitalizing historic and currently vulnerable Hispanic- and minority-serving institutions like Northeastern and Chicago State around the country is ultimately a better test of commitment to racial justice.     

Isaura Pulido is professor of education and cocoordinator of the Latina/o and Latin American studies program at Northeastern Illinois University.