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The Role of Flagship Universities in Dismantling Systemic Oppression


The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is Illinois’ flagship university. I had the pleasure of knowing alumni from UIUC who spoke highly of the quality of education that one would receive if accepted. What universities also offer a sense of community, additional support services, and resources to ensure their students are successful? This question is what originally drove me to visit UIUC. 

A university with the mission “to enhance the lives of citizens in Illinois, across the nation and around the world through leadership in learning, discovery, engagement, and economic development,” fell woefully short in the eyes of a prospective African American student. Observing the demographic data of UIUC at the time showed approximately 5.4% of the enrolled undergraduates were African American. This number is abysmal when one recognizes that African Americans make up approximately 14.2% of Illinois’ population. The more African American students that I talked to, the more I began to understand why this discrepancy existed. 

Beginning with recruiting, of the dozens of college fairs that I attended I recall seeing representation from UIUC once or twice. I saw representation from the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus (UIC) at almost every college fair, so much so that I created personal relationships with UIC’s recruiters. This revealed a large difference in priorities and target population between both campuses. From conversations with African American students at both campuses, I quickly realized that UIC offered more resources specifically for African American students. The CHANCE Program, the African American Academic Network (AAAN), and the African American Cultural Center all provided space and resources for African American students. I learned that while UIUC provides a world-class education, UIC provides a world-class education while also attempting to foster community.

UIUC was a disappointment. As the flagship campus, it should reflect the diversity of the state. I encourage UIUC to work on recruiting African American students where they are and providing more, enhanced supports specifically for African American students. A concerted effort to recruit Black students where they are and provide the type of support services that are found on other U of I campuses could go a long way in recruiting and retaining African American prospective students. These efforts could help African American prospective students feel at home when they tour the campus and know that they want to be at UIUC.

The vast amount of resources offered to African American students by other colleges and universities dwarfed the state flagship and continues to serve as a reason why UIUC’s demographics don’t mirror that of the state’s population. Taking into account the vast wealth differences between average white families and average Black families will help to understand why financial support services and other wrap-arounds are vital to Black student success. For instance, we need to acknowledge and strategize around the fact that African American college degree earners could be worth less than white GED earners. Recruitment and retention are tied to a broader discussion around racial discrimination that has been systematized and perpetuated in the job market. Younger Black prospective students are realizing that without increased financial support and wrap-around services, college is not the great equalizer it has been touted as.

Marvin Slaughter is a public policy practitioner with interests in social equity and amelioration of intergenerational inequality. Marvin is an alum of the University of Illinois- Chicago and The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.