Alarms sounded at the University of Maryland when the Class of 2022 arrived at College Park. Seven percent of freshmen in fall 2018 were Black, down from 10 percent the year before and 13 percent in 2014.
It marked a nadir for a metric crucial to the flagship university's commitment to diversity in a state where about a third of public high school graduates each year are Black.
U-Md.'s admissions team resolved to reverse the trend, with urgent outreach to high school seniors who had started applications but not finished them.
"We got on the phone and we called hundreds, hundreds of students," said Shannon Gundy, executive director of undergraduate admissions. The interventions continued even after admission decisions. Gundy's team called admitted students to remind them about a campus visit day, to confirm their intent to enroll, and to push them to register for orientation.
It helped. The Black share of freshmen rebounded the next fall to 10 percent.
Yet the episode underscored the enduring disconnect between the racial demographics of many flagship universities, including U-Md., and the population of states they serve.
Fifteen state flagships had at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of Black public high school graduates in their states in 2019 and the Black share of freshmen they enrolled that fall, according to federal data analyzed by the Hechinger Report and The Washington Post.
For U-Md., the gap was 24 points - the sixth-largest in the country. Critics say College Park has a dismal record in recruiting and enrolling a student body that resembles Maryland.
"It's really just the age-old conversation about waiting for a seat at the table," said Saba Tshibaka, a U-Md. senior and organizer with the student organization Black Terps Matter. "I want U-Md. to really understand the impact of denying these native Black students from Maryland, but I don't think that they do."
College Park, like many flagships, also struggles to recruit Latino students. About 7 percent of U-Md. freshmen in 2019 were Latino, compared with nearly 14 percent of Maryland's public high school graduates.
Flagship universities are among the most prestigious public universities in the country, financed in part by tax dollars, and their missions include providing affordable and high-quality education to residents of their states.
Focused on research and teaching, the schools are typically more selective than other public universities. They recruit heavily in their home states but also around the nation and the world. Getting into them can provide a huge academic and career boost. They tend to have higher graduation rates, and their alumni networks provide powerful economic and political connections.
"Many of the flagships and highly selective public colleges are behaving basically like an Ivy League institution when it comes to admissions," said Tomás Monarrez, a research associate at the Urban Institute who has analyzed racial representation in higher education. "The issue is not that there aren't enough qualified Black and Latino students. It's about who they're choosing to accept."
Black students have long been underrepresented at flagships across the country.
In 2019, federal data shows, the Black share of public high school graduates was 17 percent in Michigan, 37 percent in South Carolina and 49 percent in Mississippi. But the Black share of freshmen enrollment that fall was 4 percent at the University of Michigan, 6 percent at the University of South Carolina and 10 percent at the University of Mississippi.
The 39-point gap in Mississippi was the largest in the country on this measure of flagship demographics.
"(W)e have progress to make," University of Mississippi spokesman Rod Guajardo acknowledged in a statement. He said the school is intensifying efforts to recruit and retain African American students from within the state. He cited a financial aid initiative and a program that invites rising high school seniors to a summer conference on the campus in Oxford, Miss.
The drive at many flagships to recruit more from out of state also shapes demographics. Those students, who pay higher tuition, often come from White and affluent families. At Mississippi, slightly more than half of incoming freshmen are from out of state. Guajardo noted that the Black share of in-state students is 20 percent. That's twice as large as the Black share of the total entering class in 2019.
The universities of Michigan and South Carolina also have scholarship and college-readiness initiatives to bolster Black enrollment. Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, said the percentages of Black and Latino students at the flagship in Ann Arbor had declined after a 2006 state law barred the consideration of race in public university admissions.
Perennially controversial, policies on affirmative action in admissions vary from state to state. At U-Md., race and ethnicity are two among 26 factors weighed in what officials describe as a "holistic" review of applications.
University leaders say they are committed to advancing equity in admissions.
"I think the state of Maryland's citizens, who come from all parts of the state and every Zip code, should have the opportunity to attend the flagship institution," said U-Md. President Darryll Pines, who took office in 2020.
College Park has competition for Black high school students in Maryland. Some opt for one of the state's four historically Black universities, Gundy said, or for Howard University in the District of Columbia. Many go to community colleges or prominent schools out of state.
The 2018 drop in Black enrollment fueled a major push for improvement. Wallace Loh, then U-Md. president, created a task force to beef up outreach, and the admissions office created new positions focused on diversity.
The university also set a $100 million fundraising target for an endowment to provide need-based scholarships for underserved students from Maryland and D.C.
"That was the year that it got our attention and made us think, 'OK, we need to do something to change this. This can't be the start of a trend,' " Gundy said.
U-Md. said that last fall the Black share of freshmen was 11 percent. Like some of its peers, the university also enrolls hundreds of Black students every year through transfer programs.
Among major public universities, U-Md. has one of the highest six-year graduation rates for Black students: 81 percent in 2019. That's just behind the University of Michigan - 84 percent - and ahead of the University of Florida's 77 percent. Black graduation rates for the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin were 76 percent.
The University of Virginia had the highest Black graduation rate among flagships, 90 percent. But federal data also show Black students are significantly underrepresented at U-Va. They made up 7 percent of the entering freshman class that fall.
Graduation data shows College Park has a strong record in educating African Americans, said Freeman Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a separate school within the University System of Maryland.
U-Md. is "doing a good job in recruiting students who can succeed there," Hrabowski said, adding that it is "simplistic" to focus only on racial diversity in the entering classes of public universities when there are often significant challenges in school systems that leave many high school graduates unprepared for rigorous college work.
At UMBC, about 18 percent of its freshmen in 2019 were Black, up from 12 percent in 2014.
But Hrabowski said: "I'm less interested in the numbers going in, than I am in the numbers we are producing." To him, it's all about the degrees.
In 2019, federal data show, U-Md. awarded 880 bachelor's degrees to Black students. That was the highest total for any flagship in the country, partly a function of its size and high graduation rate. The benchmark suggests the issue for U-Md. is how to open those opportunities to a wider group of potential students.
Skeptics question whether the flagships focus too much on a narrow band of students who they know will graduate with minimal support.
"Flagship universities are not accepting a lot of students - including Black and Latino students - who probably could succeed if they went there," said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "They're exacerbating racial inequities instead of combating them."
U-Md. officials said they are trying to help high school students who may not have access to challenging coursework or expert college counseling.
Gundy cited a program begun several years ago called Maryland Ascent, which matches prospective first-generation college students with U-Md. admissions staff who help them navigate applying to college.
She also said U-Md. recruiters each year visit almost all of the state's high schools.
But several educators in Baltimore and Prince George's County - two places with the largest numbers of Black students in Maryland - said the university often bypasses some high schools. U-Md. did not release a list of the high schools its recruiters visit.
Tshibaka, the Black Terps Matter organizer, said the quality of conversations matters as much as the quantity of visits.
She has accompanied admissions officers on high school visits. Sometimes, Tshibaka said recruiters fail to talk up multicultural organizations, academic programs, clubs and other aspects of campus life that might entice Black students.
"That's a systemic issue," she said.