There was a time when Anthony Freeman wanted to be a Razorback. Arkansas’s original land-grant university was the very picture of "college" he held in his mind. He visited and applied and, he says, got in.
That's as far as it got.
A North Pulaski High running back and a Christian youth minister, Freeman had worked to become an Academic Allstar, a best-of-the-best, at the state’s second-biggest community college, Pulaski Technical College (now UA-Pulaski Tech), and he was preparing himself to be an architecture major, a degree field with comparatively few African Americans.
"My mind was set on UA. My heart was set on UA. I'm going to get to UA."
He chose the University of Arkansas at Little Rock instead. It was closer, and cheaper — in part because he could graduate in fewer semesters. But there was something else, too.
"The campus offers so much," he said of UA Little Rock, "and the diversity on campus just felt more comfortable. Plus, I had a lot of architectural internship offers in the Little Rock area, and of course, Woods Group Architects is one of the only minority firms in Arkansas. So, comparing that to being on my own in Fayetteville, with the diversity ratio there, and the opportunities I would have to recreate there versus the opportunities I already have here and the networking I have here. At the last minute, I kind of chose UALR over UA."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just about four University of Arkansas students in 100 identified as black in 2016, down from five in 2010, despite the fact that 21 of every 100 graduating high school seniors in Arkansas that year identified as black.
The number of Latino students climbed from five in 100 in 2010 to eight in 100.
That's one data set in a larger, national reporting effort that published Jan. 29 by The Hechinger Report. In the South, especially, states' largest publicly funded schools often aren't enrolling African Americans at nearly the same rate their high schools are graduating them. In neighboring Mississippi, the disparity is 40 percent.
UA media relations manager Steve Voorhies refused to facilitate an interview with a UA official for this story. He asked in an e-mail for the interview questions; after he’d reviewed them, he wrote, "We're aware and working in numerous ways to improve this … now to find someone to talk about this,” and then he said the university will wait until The Hechinger Report's national story published before commenting.
"They can talk about it once the report is out," he said, referring to The Hechinger Report's byline story by Meredith Kolodner.
(The Hechinger Report and Arkansas Public Media are reporting partners. Data for The Hechinger Report's story is easily accessed at the National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS website and the U.S. Education Department's Ed Data Express website.)
"I mean, I wouldn't accuse without knowing them any admission officers of just being racist, and that's why there's not more African American or Latino students there," Kolodner said.
Instead, she said, it's "institutional."
"I was looking at the University of Arkansas compared to other universities in the state. They still have the highest graduation rate, the highest SAT average score, and the lowest number of students who receive Pell grants, which is one way of looking at the percentage of students who are low income."
State universities have sustained budget cuts over the last decade, she said, and students who pay "full freight," and especially out-of-state students (from Texas, for instance) able to put up out-of-state tuition, are increasingly admitted.
Also, "it's become very important to universities and to their boards that they are high in the rankings in places like the U.S. News and World Report rankings. 'Are you #1?' 'Are you #25?' 'Can you be in the top 50?' And one of the things that makes a difference there is having high average SAT scores," which disadvantages underserved minorities with otherwise competitive grade-point averages.
But finances may point to another factor unique to Arkansas — Fayetteville is far closer to Tulsa and Kansas than it is to the state capital, and in Arkansas, African Americans are disproportionately concentrated in the Mississippi Delta and the south.
"Where would I be more comfortable?" Anthony Freeman asked, remembering his own decision, UA Little Rock. "Four hours away with [me] being a really, really small percent of a minority, or 30 minutes away, with [UA Little Rock] being sort of half-and-half and pretty much a [minority-]majority" campus?
In fact, according to admissions data, 54 percent of UA Little Rock's student body is white and 23 percent black, followed by 10 percent who identify as two or more races.
The director of the state's higher education department, Maria Markham, says geography is perhaps the biggest factor, in tandem with affordability, especially of two-year colleges.
"We've done a lot of things in Arkansas to make college affordable and attainable for students. One of our new programs is basically a free two-year college model," she said, referring to the Arkansas Future Grant.
"Regardless of academic performances in high school, if you go into a high-demand field at a two-year college, then we pay for it, as a state."
That, says Kolodner, ignores or willfully diminishes the incalculable benefits of attending states' big, fan-base research universities.
"Bigger endowments, graduation rates much higher — including for black and Latino students — more prestige.
"As people who have been to college know, it's not just what happens inside the classroom. It's the connections, [and] these universities tend to [graduate] people who become politicians and business people in the state — the kind who help you with jobs in the future."
Freeman suspects it's true, but he also wants to make his own way. He doesn't want to “fly the flag” for any credit that isn't his. And still, he thinks about becoming a Razorback one day.
"I still have the desire to be a Razorback, so the Master's program — that may definitely be a goal."
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.