On January 28, the political group Students For a Democratic Society gathered at the University of South Florida to protest declining Black student enrollment at the university.
The demonstrators gathered near Cooper Hall, held signs and chanted, “Money for grants and education, not for more discrimination” and “Black lives matter” as their fellow students made their way to classes. Some students stopped to get more information, join the protest and take pictures.
“Growing up Black, I always saw less of myself in the education system,” David Jones, protest facilitator and sophomore chemistry student at USF, told CL. “Coming to college and seeing it was still happening while the university goes on and on about how diverse it is, it just doesn’t feel right.”
One leering objector claimed that the students were protesting a “problem that doesn’t exist” and that “all lives matter”.
Jones and fellow SDS members claim that over the past 10 years, Black enrollment has been low and is continually decreasing at USF.
“We share the concern of the SDS students, and would love to further increase undergraduate Black student enrollment at the college,” USF Vice President of Student Success Paul Dosal told CL. “My interest is maintaining the type of campus that looks like the diverse competitive global market that students are going to enter.”
Inspired by a campaign launched in 2017 by an SDS chapter at The University of North Florida, USF SDS decided to address the issue of Black student enrollment at USF in Spring of 2019. They analyzed demographic information that USF self-reports and noticed a trend of decreasing Black student enrollment over the past 10 years. They found that the highest proportion of Black students was 12% during the 2008-09 school year and the most recent proportion was 9.4% as of Fall 2019. SDS says this percentage is disproportionate compared to the amount of Black people who live in the Tampa area. The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau puts the percentage of “Black or African American” people in Tampa at 24.2%.
SDS members met with Dosal, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Danielle McDonald and Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity Dr. Haywood Brown on December 4, 2019. SDS claims the response they received was that Black enrollment was stagnant but not declining. They also said administrators were resistant to measures which were taken to correct a similar issue at The University of North Florida. Based on the results of this meeting, SDS students decided to take further action and demonstrate on campus.
“It was an engaging meeting, I’m not sure we made much progress,” said Dosal. “Unfortunately we spent a lot of time going over the adversity score, which since our conversation we found out has been discontinued by the college board.”
“You also have to remember we’re dealing with percentages here, the number of Black students enrolled could be the same or higher than before,” Dosal continued, “But if overall enrollment has increased over the past 10 years then those percentages would be affected.”
According to Dosal, the overall USF population of undergraduate and graduate students has increased from under 39,000 in 2010, to 44,000 in 2019.
“Even looking at the 12% of Black students 10 years ago, you can see the problem,” said SDS member Enya Silva, “The decline is worse, but it should have never been that low when over 20% of Tampa is Black. USF is a public university and needs to do more to reach out to the community.”
At the meeting in December the administration and students discussed SDS’ four main requests from USF—to increase recruitment from local high schools, implement percentage plans with high schools across Florida, admit top graduates from all high schools, and take socioeconomic factors (of students) into consideration. To create more scholarships and financial aid for Black students.
While SDS students at USF are confronting this issue, problems with Black student enrollment exist across the country. In 2017, the New York Times published an analysis which described that, “The share of black freshman at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980. Black students are just 6% of freshmen but 15% of college age Americans.” While students of color saw an increase in college enrollment overall, very few saw enrollment in top-rated and Ivy League Universities.
Graduation rates of Black students show a downward trend. In 2019, the Chronicle of Higher Education released a report stating, “Black students who began college in the fall of 2011 had higher dropout rates and lower six-year completion rates—46% at public institutions, 57% at private institutions—than any other racial group.” Black students also faced a higher debt than other students upon graduation, 15% more than any other racial group.
Many students of color never make it into higher education. Groups like the Dream Defenders organize to change harmful systemic issues like the “school to prison pipeline,” a disturbing national trend of racially and economically disadvantaged students going straight from the education system to incarceration.
At USF, SDS students have a new request: a meeting with USF President Steven Currall. The group says they are going to continue their efforts until their message is spread and their goals are attained.
“Even if this protest falls on deaf ears with the administration, it’s important to keep doing this and get people politically active,” said Jones. ”It’s better than having a college community that just does not care.”