Pressed by protests, some colleges are responding to student activists' calls to cut ties with police and better foster the success of students of color.

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Students Demand Racial Justice and Equity On Campus


  • Student activists across the U.S. are joining and organizing Black Lives Matter protests.
  • In addition to ending police brutality, students call for racial equity and diversity in higher ed.
  • Many students are also pushing colleges to create equal educational opportunities.

As summer kicks into full gear, colleges are still sorting out their reopening plans for fall 2020, with many looking to resume campus life while also staying vigilant to reduce the risks posed by COVID-19.

But for the college student activists organizing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests nationwide, changing campus norms — rather than simply getting campus back to normal — is the real objective.

Police violence lies at the center of these national protests, spurred on by the recent deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police. BLM protestors are calling on politicians to defund the police, but the movement's larger goals center on educating and engaging voters.

Many young BLM activists who are also college students echo these goals at the campus level. Racial justice is among the political issues most important to college students in 2020. Today, BLM student activists are urging colleges to cut ties with police, diversify campuses, and close the educational opportunity gap.

A painted Black Lives Matter collage that includes several abstract figures holding up protest signs.
Black Lives Matter paintings are displayed near the White House on June 16, 2020. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

3 Ways College Students Demand Racial Justice

Student activists are putting pressure on colleges with sweeping calls for social change. George Washington University Professor Deniece Dortch said that she has seen "a rise in racial agency," with students expressing their activism and advocacy through protests, petitions, and even scholarship.

Dortch is less impressed with colleges' response, however. "Institutions refuse to act in ways that move the needle toward liberation, racial equity, and justice," she said. Many colleges have issued official anti-racism statements in recent weeks, but few have made systemic changes.

“Colleges and universities often take race-neutral positions … creating task forces and committees that make surface-level recommendations with little to no accountability for actionable change.”

Deniece Dortch, Professor at George Washington University

With campuses closed, college students are protesting in their home communities. Still, their efforts and petitions remain closely tied to campus life. For example, student groups provide platforms for young activists who are learning to leverage colleges' donor networks to create systemic change.

Colleges Must Help to End Police Violence

In response to the national outcry over racialized police violence, several U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, are considering diverting funds from their police departments and instead putting the money toward youth and social service programs.

Student activists at Columbia University, Georgetown University, and other higher education institutions demand that their schools sever ties with local police forces. Once the University of Minnesota Twin Cities agreed to end some partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Department, the number of campus petitions across the country increased dramatically.

“[P]olicing has been the primary vehicle for using violence to perpetuate the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people … That aspect of policing must be literally abolished.”

In the past, colleges have relied on local police to respond to campus crime and monitor large on-campus events. Going forward, colleges could depend on reinvented models for intervention, investigation, and event security.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Georgetown Law Professor Christy E. Lopez argues that reexamining all use of police force "means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year, and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will."

Colleges Must Diversify Campus Life and Curricula

In the past several weeks, higher education has produced a tall stack of official statements decrying racism. However, black students and black academics are dissatisfied with the response, arguing that racism is upheld by the lack of diversity and representation in higher ed.

Promoting racial equity in higher education means admitting and retaining more students of color, hiring more diverse faculty members, and expanding curricula to educate students about racial justice. Many universities are far whiter than the states they serve, both in their faculties and student bodies.

“[R]arely do [colleges’ official statements] substantively address the dearth of black students, faculty members, and administrators on campuses, or the relative absence of black authors and subjects from our curricula …”

While college students have become more diverse due to schools' increased funding and efforts, the racial diversity of faculty and staff members remains relatively low. More than 75% of college professors are white. Improving representation among faculty members could help narrow the educational achievement gap, as students of color can benefit from having more teachers of color to look up to.

Colleges also promise to teach more about race by including racial justice curricula in their general education requirements. At many institutions, all first-year students take the same health and/or communication courses. Going forward, a first-semester course could entail topics like white privilege, civil rights, and the history of racial oppression.

Colleges Must Close the Opportunity Gap

Academic success remains closely tied to family income. Children from wealthy families tend to go to quality schools and receive ample college prep, helping them graduate in large numbers. Meanwhile, children from low-income families often fall through the educational cracks. Poverty continues to affect people of color the most.

College is celebrated as an important social mobility tool, but the numerous barriers in getting to and graduating from college mean that too few underprivileged students benefit from this valuable experience. Only a small percentage of black, college-eligible high school seniors attend college — and an even smaller percentage graduate.

Closing the opportunity gap, activists say, requires quality education at the K-12 level, reenvisioned college entrance exams, and a greater consideration of adversity in the admissions process.

A large group of people made up of mostly college students protests on a street in Hollywood by taking a knee and raising their fists high in the air.
Students march through Hollywood on June 2, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

College Students Spur Changes On and Off Campus

Student activists can effect real change. According to Harvard University Professor Julie Reuben, student activism is most successful when college students make "an off-campus issue also a campus issue."

Colleges have made promises in official statements, but now it's up to students to hold these institutions to higher standards and ensure that schools make progressive changes to combat racism. Protests and social media trends have proven to be powerful tools, but students must show that they are in this fight for the long haul.

“As support for the [BLM] movement grows, pressure from activists has prompted colleges to accelerate action on complaints that might have simmered in committee discussions for months.”

At the close of his 2020 commencement address to the graduates of historically black colleges and universities, former President Barack Obama reminded students to bring online activism to the real world.

"[M]ake sure you ground yourself in actual communities with real people — working whenever you can at the grassroots level," Obama urged. "Don't just activate yourself online. Change requires strategy, action, organizing, marching, and voting in the real world like never before."