African American students weigh campus attitudes in picking colleges

Raven Tripplett, left, Sabrina Montgomery, Melissa Alvarez and Jahmia Edwards -- seniors at Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School in South Los Angeles -- have all been accepted by UCLA.
Raven Tripplett, left, Sabrina Montgomery, Melissa Alvarez and Jahmia Edwards -- seniors at Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School in South Los Angeles -- have all been accepted by UCLA.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Jahmia Edwards cried when she opened the letter saying she’d been admitted to UCLA, the college she’d dreamed of attending since childhood.

The 18 year-old senior at Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School in South Los Angeles quickly dismissed UC Merced, Cal Poly Pomona and Syracuse University, the other schools where she’d been accepted.

It has taken weeks, however, for her classmate, Sabrina Montgomery, 17, to decide on a college, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of UCLA versus UC San Diego, after not getting into her No. 1 choice, UC Berkeley.


College choice: An article in the May 1 LATExtra section about high school students making decisions on selecting a college referred to the Institute for the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. It is the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. —

Her decision was UCLA. San Diego offered proximity to the beach, but information about some racially charged incidents was dismaying to the African American student, and she said she didn’t feel quite as welcome.

In California and across the nation, students are reassessing campuses, consulting counselors and crunching financial aid numbers ahead of Thursday’s Decision Day deadline to submit deposits to their college of choice.

Edwards and Sabrina, like many other black students, are weighing other concerns, too, such as the campus climate and the presence of student groups, faculty and mentors who would provide a network of support.

In the nearly 20 years since California voters approved Proposition 209, banning consideration of race in public college admissions, the number of black students at UCLA, UC Berkeley and other campuses has plummeted.

University of California leaders say that they want to improve those figures and that campuses are attempting more outreach into predominantly minority high schools, among other things. But for black students, a campus with few of their peers can be a daunting prospect.

On the UC San Diego tour, for example, Sabrina said that members of the Black Student Union discussed racial harassment at the 30,000-student campus, where about 2% of undergraduates are African American.


The university faced scrutiny from the federal government after several racially tinged incidents, including a noose left in the campus library and an infamous off-campus fraternity party dubbed the “Compton Cookout” in 2010. The school created a special office of equity and diversity and administrators pledged to provide more preventive training for staff and students and increase recruitment of low-income and minority students.

“They didn’t want to scare us, but they wanted us to know the issues were real and that we shouldn’t be surprised,” said Sabrina, who also attends Ouchi. “Stuff like this happens at other prestigious colleges because of the low number of African American students. It’s not the only reason for not going to San Diego, but I just didn’t see myself as a part of the campus.”

Some black and Asian students at UCLA also have denounced the racial climate at the Westwood campus, after recent incidents of students receiving hate mail and the posting of offensive fliers. But senior Raven Tripplett said she was impressed by the school’s summer transition program for freshmen and the support she will receive from the campus Afrikan Student Union.

The Ouchi senior was also admitted to UC campuses at Berkeley, Riverside and Irvine as well as Howard University, among others, but not her first choice — Stanford University. Although she liked Howard, a historically black college in the nation’s capital, she wanted a more diverse experience, she said.

“I didn’t notice a lot of other black students at UCLA other than the group I was with,” Raven, 17, said. “I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to feel isolated, but I’m going in with an open mind, even knowing I might be the only black person in my class.”

That is the reality for many black students at the most selective universities, said Shaun Harper, executive director of the Institute for the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.


Black students may also encounter others from more privileged backgrounds who hold negative stereotypes or they may be put into positions of speaking for their entire race, said Harper, who has been working on a project at several universities, including UCLA, to promote success for black male students.

“In the college choice process, those issues are not weighed as much as they should be by students and families,” Harper said.

Students must generally rank in the top 9% of their high school class and top 9% statewide to be admitted into one of the 10 UC campuses. At UCLA, only 16.3% of state students were admitted for the fall 2014 class, with African Americans representing about 4.4% of those accepted.

Last year, about half of admitted black students actually enrolled and administrators are hoping this time to increase that yield, said Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA associate vice chancellor for enrollment management.

Copeland-Morgan said many students wait until the last minute to decide, and office activity has been brisk with last-minute concerns from families. UCLA staff, too, are scrambling to find scholarships and other financial aid fixes so that students can attend.

The university made extensive outreach to students who are the first in their families to attend college, those who are low-income, those in rural communities and in schools with few resources. “I think we’re going to have a tremendously diverse class,” she said.


UC Irvine also is working to increase the presence of African American students and experienced the largest increase in the number of black applicants of any UC campus this year, said Thomas A. Parham, vice chancellor for students affairs. Last fall, 117 black students from California enrolled, comprising about 2.6% of the freshman class.

Parham was a black student at Irvine in the 1970s, when the school was a commuter campus of about 7,500. Blacks made up about 3.8% of undergraduate enrollment in 1976.

But black applicants now will find a number of potential role models such as himself and outgoing chancellor Michael V. Drake as well as the school’s legal counsel and dean of engineering, he said.

“I’m not some administrator they trot out once a year,” said Parham, who keeps office hours as a psychology professor. “I tell parents not only is Irvine the safest campus in America but it’s a nurturing place and we take that trust very seriously.”

Da’Nais Young studied the best nursing science programs before choosing Irvine, but said he was also impressed with the small-town environment and the welcome he received while visiting the campus.

The Sylmar High School student was also admitted to San Francisco State, Azusa Pacific and St. John’s University in New York, among others, but he said had his sights set on Irvine since he was a high school sophomore. Da’Nais,17, said he wants to become an active part of the black community on campus.


His choice of college is already influencing some of his younger relatives who have set their sights on schools such as Stanford and Yale.

“I do think my going to UCI will set an example,” he said, adding that he can’t wait to get to college. “I’m already wearing my UC Irvine shirt.”