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A debate brews among Black Ivy League students over representation on campus


Michaela Glavin did not feel a sense of belonging in the Black community when she arrived as a freshman at Harvard.

The Black student body was warm and welcoming, but as a multigenerational African American — a descendant of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. — she said she felt like “a minority within a minority.” 

“The descendants of slavery on campus are woefully underrepresented,” said Glavin, now a junior. 

Black and Latino students have long been underrepresented on Ivy League campuses as a whole, even when these colleges practiced race-conscious admissions. So when the Supreme Court in June struck down affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina — effectively ending the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process — experts sounded the alarm that enrollment at elite colleges could drop for Black and Latino students. 

But African American students (and in this article, we’re using African American to specifically denote descendants of enslaved people) at Ivy League schools are concerned about a more nuanced shift: Admissions officers may be missing or ignoring the difference between descendants of enslaved people whose families have faced centuries of educational and economic racial disparities, and Black immigrant families who still face racism but are likely to be less tied to generational economic hurdles that can make elite educations unobtainable. 

Some students have formed groups for what they call multigenerational African Americans, in an attempt to take up space and be counted on elite campuses where Black students overall are underrepresented, regardless of where they or their parents were born. 

Many of those students and experts in the area of college admissions told NBC News that their colleges have overlooked this widening gap. The African American students say they do not take issue with first- and second generation students on campus, but want their admissions offices to understand these differences.  The families of first- and second-generation students of Caribbean and African descent may face similar socio-economic roadblocks as multigenerational African Americans, but do not have the same experience with long-held disparities stemming from American slavery that created the need for affirmative action.

“The Black population on campus is already so small, but the African American population is even smaller,” said Aisha Ali, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

Altogether, 7% of all Ivy League undergrads are Black. As these colleges begin the process of building the first freshman class this fall in a post-affirmative action world, African American students expressed concern that admissions offices will continue to ignore the concerns — and applications — of descendants of American slaves, regardless of whether they are doing so consciously.

Ahmaad Fulton, also a sophomore at Penn and member of Descendants of Afro-Americans at Penn (DAAP), a student-led group, asked, “Just thinking about the amount of African Americans that will be let in next year or the following years to come, is the percentage going to decrease? That’s the biggest concern.” 

Camille Zubrinsky Charles, professor of sociology at Penn, said Fulton’s concern is a legitimate one. 

Charles co-wrote a 2007 study that disaggregated the ancestral breakdown of Black students at highly selective universities. The researchers found that 41% of Black students at four Ivy League colleges surveyed (Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Penn) were children of foreign-born parents, hailing primarily from sub-Saharan African and Caribbean nations. These first- and second-generation Black Americans were overrepresented in the Ivy League, given that at the time they made up 13% of the Black population at large.

“First- and second-generation Black immigrants have been overrepresented on selective college campuses, and that trend has continued,” Charles said. 

There has been no recent comparable research on the lineage of Black undergraduate students in the Ivy League, Charles said. It is unclear, beyond anecdotal observations from those who spoke with NBC News, that first- and second-generation students are indeed overrepresented on these campuses. But since the 2007 study took place, Black migration to the U.S., overall, has increased. First- and second-generation Black Americans now make up 21% of the Black population, according to a 2022 report by the Pew Research Center. 

Many students shared frustration that their schools did not have metrics for the portion of the Black undergraduate population that traces its roots to American slavery. The lack of data, they said, made it difficult to articulate how invisible they feel.

NBC News reached out to the Ivy League schools to see if they would comment or provide data on the ancestral breakdown of Black undergraduate students. A spokesperson for Columbia University acknowledged receipt of an inquiry from NBC News but did not reply to questions. A representative for Harvard University directed NBC News to a fact book with enrollment data by race/ethnicity, but not by ancestral lineage. Dartmouth, Brown, Penn, Yale, Princeton and Cornell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Wanting to be seen

When Shannon Brooks, a junior at Penn, meets other Black students on campus for the first time, she’s often asked about her ethnic background. When she tells people she is African American, there’s a follow-up question: “Where are you really from?”

“I don’t have another flag or ethnicity to represent,” Brooks said. “My family has just always been here.”

Christopher Butcher, a junior at Princeton, said he did not notice many spaces dedicated solely to African American culture on campus.

While Butcher enjoys experiencing the cuisine and music tied to Black diasporic cultures when he attends their student events, these cultural celebrations reminded him of how isolated he can feel from the Black social landscape on campus.

“Me, as someone who isn’t Nigerian American or wasn’t Ethiopian or Eritrean, I didn’t want to take up too much space in an organization that was curated for people with those identities,” Butcher said. 

Ali, the Penn student, said all Black students are eligible for membership to their affinity group. But, the club’s constitution places higher priority for leadership positions on students who have at least one multigenerational Black parent. She said there was pushback from some members in the Black community about the clause being potentially exclusionary.

“That should be self-explanatory for why we did that,” Ali said. “If it’s a club for African Americans, it should be run by us, for us.” 

Ultimately, the club was approved, but the process of obtaining their status made her feel that there was ignorance around the importance of their affinity space.

Socio-economic differences within the Black population

The overrepresentation of first- and second-generation Black American students in the Ivy League can be explained, in part, by social class differences, according to sociologists.

“There is this college-going history,” Charles said in a follow-up email. “Some parents likely bring their educational attainment/credentials with them, while others, especially parents of 2nd generation students may have been educated here in the U.S.” 

First-gen African immigrants, in particular, are more likely to migrate than others in their native country, because they have an incentive: reaping the benefits of their degree, according to Charles. It’s worth noting that immigration visas put an emphasis on workers with high-demand skills.  

Data from the U.S. Census shows that, in 2019, 30% of Black immigrants above the age of 25 had a college degree, in comparison with 21% of U.S.-born Black residents. The gap increased for certain subgroups of Black immigrants. For example, 64% of Nigerian-born immigrants had a college degree in 2019.

Charles said the parents of second-generation Black students also tend to benefit from higher incomes, higher rates of homeownership, and higher median home values. In 2019, the median income for households headed by Black immigrants was $57,200, compared with $42,000 for households headed by U.S.-born African Americans, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. 

There is large variation in socio-economic status among Black immigrants depending on their geographic area and country of origin. Still, the relative affluence among these households may contribute to their children attending better-resourced schools before heading to college.

High academic qualifications are generally attractive to admissions offices. But, standardized testing — including the SAT and AP exams — can often reflect social inequality and disparate educational resources, rather than a student’s aptitude or college preparedness. A New York Times analysis of admissions data collected by Harvard researchers found that students from higher-income families scored significantly higher on standardized tests than those from low-income families. Black, Latino, and Native American children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools, meaning fewer resources are available for them to prepare for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

Lyric Johnson, who is a senior at Brown University and uses they/them pronouns, said, “I did not know about the SAT or ACT or really any of what it tangibly took to get into a good school,” until their junior year of high school when they relocated to California.

A new guidance counselor explained what Johnson, a multigenerational African American, could do to be a more competitive applicant.

“That’s when I started to take AP classes,” they said.

The calculus of college selection among first- and second-gen

Common factors in ascertaining the best college fit include proximity to home, affordability and a safe cultural climate, according to Timothy L. Fields, co-author of “The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions.”

But, Charles said immigrant-headed families (parents who are foreign-born) generally tend to have an eye toward upward mobility in the college selection process. They “are much more focused on the prestige of the university. Even more so than the affordability,” Charles said. “‘We’re going to get you to the most prestigious school we can get you to, and then we’ll figure out how to pay for it.’” 

This was the case for Courtineé Walker, a senior at Cornell. When it came time to choose a school, she said Howard University was her top choice. The historically Black university offered her a full scholarship.

However, school name and prestige were influential factors for her Jamaican parents. “The decision was made there for me. They decided I’m going to an Ivy League,” she said.

The preference for prestigious universities stems from a belief that admissions there would ensure improved career outcomes. “Elite colleges and universities expose you to social networks that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” Charles said.

“I’m from a Nigerian family, and the perspective that my mom often talked about was comparing opportunities I had here to what I would have had at home,” said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a law professor at the Boston University School of Law. “That’s a different comparison to what African Americans with long-term roots from the country would have here.”

For many Black immigrants who grew up within the racial majority of their countries, Onwuachi-Willig added, they may be more confident about the possibility of socio-economic success compared to African Americans who weathered generations of segregation and racism.

“It isn’t just easy to come here,” Walker said. Her parents strived to make the best of any opportunities afforded to them, she continued.

Walker said she feels solidarity with the African American students who aim to increase their student population. Coming from a majority-white high school, she immediately grasped onto people who shared similar cultural heritage resulting in her friend group being primarily Caribbean and African. She noted that more African American students could make the Black community at-large, regardless of ethnicity, feel more comfortable in the elite space: “A win for any Black person is a win for all Black people.”

Glavin, the junior at Harvard, also spoke against pitting Black students against one another. “Asking for more representation for African Americans doesn’t necessitate that there be less representation across other groups in the Black diaspora,” she said.

An uncertain future

Brooks, who is a co-chair of the Descendants of Afro-Americans at Penn, said she is worried that the affirmative action ruling may put the future of the club in peril, due to potentially fewer members.

“It’s a scary reality that once we leave, it may no longer be here,” Brooks said. A similar multigenerational Black student club that predated DAAP disappeared after the pandemic, leaving behind little information about who its members were. She fears a similar fate could await her organization, given that it is already hard to recruit members from the small Black American student population.

Glavin, who is the vice president of the Harvard Multigenerational African American Student Association, said that “in a lot of ways, our hands are tied.” Still she noted, “strengthening the community that we do have is really important.”

Other Black American student leaders in the Ivy League shared a conviction to serve their multigenerational Black peers and communities following the ruling.

Johnson said that Brown University’s Black American Student Union is focused on figuring out how to achieve reparations for Black American students on campus to acknowledge the role that  the labor of enslaved Africans played in the institution’s creation. Georgetown University, for example, created an annual reconciliation fund of $400,000 to benefit the local descendant communities.

“You need to actually be tangibly helping the communities that you hurt, not just acknowledging that you did,” Johnson said.

Butcher said that his club at Princeton is working on a survey to estimate the number of African American students on campus. He plans to speak with leadership in the admissions office to relay a sense of urgency in reaching out and recruiting prospective Black American applicants.

At Penn, Brooks said their organization wants to bridge the divide between the school and the surrounding Black community in Philadelphia. They want to remediate issues exacerbated by Penn’s presence, such as the housing displacement of local residents. 

Beyond advocacy, they are focused on championing African American culture on campus, whether it be in the form of cookouts with the Philly community or pop-up salons where local barbers and stylists do students’ hair.

“Instead of waiting for people to leave Penn’s campus to find community when they go back home, there is community here as well,” Brooks said.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.