Every state has at least one, and sometimes two, flagship colleges. In Michigan, you have Michigan and Michigan State; in Georgia, you have UGA and Georgia Tech. Most states, however, have only one flagship like LSU (Louisiana), the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the Ohio State University. There is no official definition of a flagship college, but flagship colleges almost always have the following traits:

  1. They are large
  2. They are prestigious
  3. They offer a wide range of doctorate programs
  4. They participate in D-1 sports
  5. They are older
  6. They are more expensive than other in-state schools
  7. They are more selective than other in-state schools

There is often tremendous value in attending a flagship college because of their name recognition, the breadth and strength of their programs, and the professional network that their graduates have access to. As Harold Levy of the NY Daily News says in an article on August 27, 2017, “Sadly, once venerable engines of social mobility, our public flagship universities may soon become levers for social stratification.”

I am going to go one step further: they already have become skewed to the upper middle class and wealthy, and they currently do not reflect the racial demographic makeup of their states.

A Hechinger Report analysis of national data revealed that 17 states had at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of their public high school graduates who are black and the percentage of their flagships’ freshman class who are black. For Latinos, 10 states had at least a 10-point gap. New York and Illinois had double-digit gaps for both groups.

The states with the biggest disparities:

  • Mississippi’s public schools are 50 percent black, but the University of Mississippi is only 10 percent black, a staggering 80 percent drop since 2010.
  • South Carolina, Georgia, LSU, and Delaware are four other states with at least 30 percent fewer black kids at their flagships than their racial makeup in their public high schools.
  • The University of California at Berkeley has the largest gap with Latinos. Latinos are 51 percent of public high school students in California, but they are only 13 percent of students at this flagship school, a 38 percent gap.

I believe there are four primary reasons that explain this disparity:

  1. As state appropriations to public schools have decreased by multi-millions, flagships have turned to recruiting wealthy out-of-state students whom they can charge three times what in-state students pay for tuition.
  2. There is still an educational and a wealthy gap between the parents of students of color and their white counterparts and this gap results in the wealthier white students, on average, having higher grade point averages and test scores. People underestimate the role parents play as primary teachers. If they are more educated, they can transmit their knowledge to students, giving them a substantial leg up compared to others they might end up competing with. If they are wealthier, they are likely to live in school districts with better schools. Fourteen years of better schools gives students an incalculable advantage. Wealthier families can also afford private schools, subject tutors, and expensive SAT and ACT tutors. They also can use their economic advantage and honed political skills to pressure their schools not to give their students C’s on their report cards
  3. Many flagship schools no longer see it as a priority to bridge the gap of social inequities and contribute to a more just society.
  4. The disparity in these numbers reveals that despite the rhetoric, these schools are just not as committed as they purport to be to the value of the diverse perspective that students of color bring to their campus.

I worked with a black student recently with an almost perfect ACT score and a 3.9 GPA; he took seven AP classes and he had no suspensions and overall strong character reviews. He was not accepted by a flagship school. This is a kid that more than half the Ivy League would admit. Those schools value the black athlete who scores the touchdown and dunks the ball, but I, for one, find it off-putting to see white coaches paid multimillion dollar salaries, while black athletes (who bring multi-millions of dollars to the school) perform while the white cheerleaders urge them on. We can do better. We must do better!