Until 1956, the University of Texas admitted only whites as undergraduates, and reminders of that segregationist past can still be seen today. Its Austin campus, one of nine in the statewide system, still boasts a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the slaveholding American Confederacy.
So what happened this autumn in Texas' flagship public university is particularly surprising. Almost without anyone noticing, for the first time, whites were in the minority among first-year undergraduates on the Austin campus.
It's a bellwether of what is about to happen - and, fairly quietly, already has happened at other universities in Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York City and Chicago - in a country where non-whites are by far the fastest-growing group of traditional-age university students.
That this demographic milestone has been reached with so little fanfare seems particularly significant to William Powers Jr, president of the University of Texas, given the historically incendiary nature of race in the US.
"If you want to take a benchmark of how we've progressed over 20 years, this went more unrecognised than you might have expected it to," Powers observes. "That is in itself a milestone."
Things are changing in the American South. The Jefferson Davis statue now shares Austin's campus with memorials to Mexican-American labour leader Cesar Chavez and Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to Congress from a southern state. On the West Mall, outside the student union, the recruiting tables for the country-dance and sailing clubs stand next to tables for the Iranian Students' Academic and Cultural Organisation and the Filipino Students Association.
The situation when a minority becomes a majority brings its own challenges, "but it's a sign that we're in a new era", Powers says.
Still, not all the news is good. Blacks and Hispanics are still under-represented on university campuses, compared with their share of the population. And with the influx of students of some groups, others - namely, East Asians - are increasingly finding themselves shut out.
"Someone has to be," says Stephen Hsu, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon. He compares the discrimination he says East Asian students face to quotas used against Jews by elite US universities in the early 20th century.
"It's a zero-sum game. The desire to have 'ideal diversity' on a campus means that some racial groups will suffer," he says.
Once on campus, however, students of different backgrounds mix less freely than social engineers might like. To walk across the Austin campus is to see whites socialising with whites, blacks with blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, and East Asians with East Asians. The campus may be more diverse, but it still seems segregated.
"We all do this as humans," says Aileen Bumphus, executive director of the Gateway Program, one of the University of Texas' main diversity initiatives. "We all go back to our basic level of comfort."
But by far the biggest challenge is that many ethnic minority students come from underperforming urban high schools and low-income families from which they are the first to attend university. They are statistically the most likely to drop out without costly extra help. And they are arriving just as universities' resources are stretched more thinly than ever, and when there are widespread demands for higher graduation rates.
Observers worry that most higher education institutions aren't ready.
"The numbers have been telling the story for years, but it hasn't got through to policymakers that this was going on," says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a non-profit group working to increase the number of Americans who complete their university education. "We are all seeing it happening faster than expected.
"Unfortunately most universities are pretty traditional," Jones adds. "They expect students to come out of strong high schools, and they also expect them not to have to work for a living when they're in college, and none of that is true with these (ethnic minority) students."
Fifty-two per cent of Hispanic students and 58 per cent of black students fail to earn bachelor's degrees within six years of beginning higher education, compared with 40 per cent of white students, according to the government's National Center for Education Statistics.
"The group with the most significant increase in the number of births are Hispanics, but the challenge is that Hispanics don't graduate from high school in the same numbers, they don't matriculate to college in the same numbers, and they don't graduate from college in the same numbers," Jones says.
"If you look at the freshman classes in this country, it is more representative than it's ever been. But in four years if you were to look at their graduating classes, it is not going to be representative, because many of those students from the under-represented groups won't make it to graduation."
Educators blame the disparity on economic differences, the uneven quality of college preparation offered at urban, rural and suburban high schools, and a sense of isolation for those who are the first in their families to progress to higher education.
The complexion of the US, however, is changing too quickly for universities to waste time in adjusting. Non-whites account for 83 per cent of the population growth in the US - and Hispanics alone for half it. The Census Bureau projects that, by 2023, a majority of children enrolled in primary and secondary schools nationally will be non-white. And by 2050, the share of the total population that is white is forecast to have dropped to 52 per cent (from around 68 per cent now).
There is wide regional variation. Outside cities such as Chicago and New York, the Midwest and Northeast remain comparatively white, whereas the Southeast and Southwest are increasingly Hispanic and the West and Northwest more and more East Asian.
Beyond the University of Texas, universities that have seen their racial makeup change to a majority of non-white students include several campuses of the City University of New York, Florida International University in Miami, Chicago State University, Clayton State University in Georgia, 16 of the 38 public universities in Texas (including all the University of Texas campuses), all but two campuses of the University of California system, and all the campuses of the California State University system. In California, orientation sessions for the parents of new university students are now routinely conducted in Spanish as well as English.
What is increasingly evident now that wasn't evident 10 or 20 years ago is the extent to which this is a national phenomenon," says Steve Murdock, Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston. "And how well we deal with it will determine how well we remain competitive economically."
The state of Texas is in the vanguard of this change. In the past 10 years, the number of students in Texas primary and secondary schools grew by 795,000, of whom 748,000 were Hispanic, Murdock says. The number of whites declined by 131,000. Of the state's 15 largest school districts - the equivalent of a local authority for schools in the UK - all are majority non-white, and eight are majority Hispanic. Only 5 per cent of students in the Dallas school district are white; in Houston, 8 per cent.
Because non-whites have traditionally progressed to university at much lower rates than whites, higher education institutions in Texas have for many years used affirmative-action policies to admit students who might not have otherwise met admissions criteria. But in 1996, after four white applicants sued, those policies were blocked by a court, although the ruling was later overturned in a 2003 decision by the US Supreme Court. It held that universities could legally apply race-conscious policies in admissions.
Before that happened, however, the state launched an initiative in which the top 10 per cent of graduates of every Texas high school were granted automatic admission to one of its public universities. The move has had the effect of accelerating racial diversity on many of the campuses.
"It's amazing how good policy can come from bad law," says Gregory Vincent, vice-president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
At Austin, non-whites make up 52 per cent of this year's first-year undergraduate cohort, including 23 per cent Hispanic and 5 per cent black. Whites account for 48 per cent, and the rest are East Asian and other groups.
Even that does not match the diversity of the population of Texas itself, which became a majority-minority state in 2004. Nearly 39 per cent of the population is Hispanic and 12 per cent black.
The University of Texas spends $30.4 million (£19.1 million) a year on its Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, which it set up in 2007 to expose high school students from traditionally under-represented minorities to the idea of going on to higher education, and to help them when they become university students with a huge framework of support programmes such as tutoring, personal advice, mentoring by students in higher years, smaller classes and first choice of courses during registration. About $5 million of the budget comes from state funds and the rest from charitable foundations and other donors.
"They have the tenacity to do it. The question is, can we get them the support to help them over the gaps?" asks Vincent, who oversees the programmes.
Success rates are promising. Students in the University of Texas' principal support programme have grades and retention rates as good as, or better than, the average in their class. In the California State University system, where non-white students are in the majority on all its campuses, graduation rates have increased for all groups, although there are still disparities.
"It is not a deterministic thing that graduation rates go down" as non-white representation goes up, says Philip Garcia, the California State University system's director of analytic studies.
"Our students come highly motivated, so our challenges aren't as great as you would expect, despite assumptions some people might make about their backgrounds," says the Gateway Program's Bumphus. Her group works with about 300 University of Texas students who are the first in their families to attend university.
"Our biggest challenge is making sure they understand the rules of the game. If they had family members who went to college they'd be more savvy about dealing with the realities of a large campus," she says. They may find themselves in first-year classes with 300 students when previously "they've mainly been sitting in high-school classes of 25 or 35".
Other states are also working to make sure that, once enrolled, non-white students stay the course. But disparities among the groups remain, even at a time when US president Barack Obama has called to raise the proportion of university-educated workers from the current 28 per cent to 60 per cent by 2025. The current rate of growth is a paltry 0.2 per cent per year, meaning a significant rise in completion rates will be required just when states are cutting the budgets of public universities. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University estimates that by 2018 the US economy will fall short of the number of university-educated workers it needs by 3 million.
Yet statistics suggest that students from one of the most academically successful ethnic groups, East Asians, are being admitted to US universities at surprisingly low rates. Although they comprise less than 4 per cent of the US population as a whole, East Asians make up 24 per cent of students at elite universities. But they would probably comprise an even larger share if some were not being kept out by seemingly lopsided admissions requirements.
Universities deny that they have quotas to keep East Asian students out. Statistics show, however, that only one in 15 East Asian applicants is admitted to Ivy League universities, compared with one of every 10 applicants of other racial groups.
Thomas Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, calculated that East Asians needed perfect scores of 1,600 on the principal university entrance examination, the SAT Reasoning Test, to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1,460 and blacks who scored 1,150. He found that whites were three times, blacks five times and Hispanics twice as likely to be accepted at a US university as East Asians.
"It's both true that Asians are over-represented and that they're being discriminated against," Hsu says. "The same things can happen at the same time." University admissions, he adds, "should be a meritocracy. But people have other social goals in mind."
As in Texas, public university admissions policies in California have been affected by politics and court rulings. In 1996, California voters banned the use of affirmative-action policies by public agencies, including universities, and that ban was upheld by a court as recently as December. (Voters have adopted similar bans on racial preferences in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington State.) Without such racial filters, the percentage of East Asian students at the University of California at Irvine shot up to 61 per cent, Berkeley 42 per cent and University of California, Los Angeles 38 per cent, in a state where East Asians comprise just 13 per cent of the population.
This indicates that universities in other states are handicapping East Asian applicants, Hsu says.
"It's all hush-hush, but it's pretty clear from the data," he alleges. "You get some schools that don't disclose they're doing it. They just all sort of magically end up with under 20 per cent Asian students."
Hsu says universities do this partly to ensure diversity that might be crowded out by large numbers of East Asians, and partly to avoid alienating their alumni.
"The motivation for, say, Harvard (whose undergraduate population is 16 per cent East Asian) wanting to cap its Asian admissions is that they may lose some alumni support, if they have some rich alumni whose kids might not want to work too hard (to compete with the East Asian students)."
The disparity has received as little attention in the US as the shift of whites to minority status among the undergraduate population at the University of Texas at Austin. But similar changes in Canada's higher education sector provoked controversy last autumn when the weekly news magazine Maclean's, in its annual university issue, asked whether Canadian universities were becoming, as a much-criticised headline put it, "Too Asian?"
With 85 per cent of East Asian parents of Toronto high school students saying they expect their children to go on to university, compared with 59 per cent of whites and 49 per cent of blacks, and Asian-Americans of East Asian origin who are unable to gain admission to US universities transferring their focus to Canadian institutions, the magazine reported that Canadian universities were becoming "so academically focused that some (non-Asian) students feel they can no longer compete or have fun".
Some white students quoted in the article said they would not choose the University of Toronto precisely because it has so many East Asian students. (A university spokeswoman denies there has been such a backlash.)
The debate has at its heart the received idea that East Asians work harder or are innately smarter than non-Asians - or, as Hsu puts it, "a pushy group of people making life too hard" - just as Jews were once portrayed.
But while "it's certainly a stereotype, it might have some statistical basis", Hsu says. "You're talking about a recent immigrant population. It probably was true that the average Jewish kid admitted to the Ivy League in the early 1900s worked harder than other kids."
Today, he adds, "it's a not-so-well-kept secret in the Asian community that you have to work that much harder when you're Asian."
Universities, however, are trying to focus on increasing the numbers of Hispanics and blacks, on the basis that these racial groups are the biggest source of future students. They help them to meet challenges on campus and also try to improve the preparation they receive in hard-pressed secondary schools.
"Our entire approach is to start as early as possible with partnerships in the communities and in the schools to get the message out to students that it's within reach," says Marcia Hirano-Nakanishi, associate vice-chancellor of the California State University system. "And that is really, really hard. But we've got to do it. It's the right thing to do."
Money will remain a problem. In Texas, for example, it is feared that legislators will slash funding for the state's largest financial-aid programme, on which a disproportionate number of non-white, low-income students depend.
"They may not have all the resources, but of course they want to go to college," says Murdock. "They know it's the answer to long-term success. But the obstacles in their way are substantial."
Register to continue
Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.
Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:
- Sign up for the editor's highlights
- Receive World University Rankings news first
- Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
- Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Or subscribe for unlimited access to:
- Unlimited access to news, views, insights & reviews
- Digital editions
- Digital access to THE’s university and college rankings analysis
- Unrestricted access to the UK and global edition of the THE app on IOS, Android and Kindle Fire
Already registered or a current subscriber? Sign in now