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Cal Poly SLO enrolls the lowest rate of Black students among all the state’s public universities

For years, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has enrolled the smallest percentage of Black students among all campuses in the California State University and University of California systems

by Mikhail Zinshteyn - CalMatters

The Black Academic Excellence Center at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Julie Leopo for CalMatters

San Luis Obispo, Calif --The most selective university in the California State University system enrolled a minuscule 146 undergraduate Black students this fall.

Pick a common benchmark for racial or social inclusion and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo is likely to trail all California public universities.

No Cal State or University of California campus, 32 undergraduate-serving institutions in total, enrolls a smaller percentage of Black undergraduate students than Cal Poly — just under 0.7% this fall. Across both systems, the campus has enrolled the smallest share of Black undergraduate students annually between 2003 and 2021 — and below 1% for most of those years.

Cal Poly is among the toughest public universities in California to enter and graduates students who go on to earn strong wages — an amazing value given the relatively low cost to attend a university in a system that’s proud of its reputation for access and inclusion. And yet Cal Poly is an anomaly, lacking much of the diversity of all the other UCs and Cal State campuses, even when compared to highly selective institutions such as UCLA, UC Berkeley and San Diego State.

Cal Poly attracts the smallest percentage of Black freshman applicants of any Cal State or UC campus and also enrolls few Black students who transfer from community colleges. Black students who spoke with CalMatters described both explicit and subtle acts of racism they experienced on campus, and the minimal trust they have in campus authorities to intervene.

All those factors are related in complex ways. Black students said they’d likely experience less direct racism and feel less isolated as the only Black person in a classroom if Cal Poly just had more Black students. But the paucity of Black students on campus is a key impediment toward attracting more of them — an almost self-fulfilling prophecy in which Black student applicants seeking a larger community of students who look like them go elsewhere. It’s a classic “chicken-and-egg” problem.

Eddie Comeaux called Cal Poly’s low Black enrollment and admissions figures “gross.” The UC Riverside professor of higher education studies has researched why some talented Black students don’t attend UC campuses. Even those schools, which attract far more Black students than Cal Poly, are hit with perception problems that compel Black students to enroll at private universities or historically black colleges and universities. “When you don’t have that representation, it sends the signal that your communities are not valued — you’re not welcome,” he said.

Cal Poly is the only California public university where more than half of the undergraduate students are white, according to fall 2021 and 2022 enrollment data, though a few other Cal State campuses come close.

Another distinction: It’s educated the smallest percentage of low-income students of any UC or Cal State annually since 2008.

Nor is it a new phenomenon that Cal Poly attracts so few Black students. Despite its in-state reputation as an academic powerhouse, Cal Poly has had the lowest share of Black freshman applicants of any Cal State and UC each year since at least 2011.

Last fall, 1.6% of Cal Poly’s freshman applicants were Black; by comparison, about 4% of California’s public high school graduates were Black and college-ready in 2021. About 4% of Cal State’s freshman applicants were Black and the same was true for 6% at the UC.

Black students who spoke with CalMatters say the dearth of Black students at Cal Poly has diminished their education and has left them feeling isolated. They also reported being called the N-word. Were it not for the independent efforts of the small, tightly knit community of Black students on campus, some say, they would have left already.

“The Black students that (Cal Poly) has kept on campus is because of the work of other Black students,” said Gracie Babatola, a third-year Black student who’s president of Associated Students Inc., the campus’s student government.

Their stories add to the recent history of prejudicial incidents on campus. Those included a white student who wore Blackface and others dressed in stereotypical street gang attire at a fraternity party that gained national attention in 2018. The campus president suspended the fraternity and then halted all Greek life for the rest of the year. A short time later, the campus leadership learned of another Blackface incident among fraternity members in a private Snapchat group, which prompted the university president to ask then-state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate that and other incidents. Months later, the attorney general’s office concluded that the students violated no state or Cal State system policies. A week after the Blackface incident, a professor found racist fliers pinned to his classroom door on campus.

“Those kinds of public spectacles can certainly get students to shy away from attending that campus,” Comeaux said.

CalMatters reached out to the administration at Cal Poly five times for an interview and was rebuffed each time.

“Cal Poly recognizes the gap in its enrollment of Black students,” wrote Matt Lazier, a Cal Poly spokesperson, in a 1,300-word email, which CalMatters is sharing in full. Cal Poly “is eager to identify and implement additional measures” to expand diversity. “Pointedly, this includes attracting and enrolling more Black applicants,” he wrote.

Lazier noted several recent programs that may attract more Black students. The campus increased mandatory fees students pay to attend, setting aside a portion for financial aid for low-income students, which disproportionately include Black students in the United States. There’s also the Cal Poly Scholars program, which offers financial aid and academic support to low-income students. That program is expected to grow with new revenue coming from recent fee increases for out-of-state students. Separately, anonymous donors independent of the university provide financial aid to 32 Black students through scholarship programs meant specifically for Black students, with awards ranging from $3,000 a year to a full ride for a wine and viticulture major. Cal Poly officials advise that donors partner with outside groups, such as the California Community Foundation, to administer the scholarships.

In recent years, the campus has also established a system for students to report bias, hired 13 new faculty whose research focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion, and runs an office of diversity and inclusion whose director is a member of the university president’s cabinet. Cal Poly also publishes a history of its efforts to make the campus a more welcoming place that dates back to 1994. “While institutional change takes time, effort, patience and persistence, the university is making progress toward a more diverse and inclusive campus community,” it reads.

Still, those efforts aren’t translating into any uptick in Black student enrollment.

The leadership of the Cal State system also turned down an interview, explaining that “there is not any direct guidance from the Chancellor’s Office to Cal Poly on the subject,” wrote system spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp. “We are in full support of their efforts to improve diversity and confident that the strategies they have identified are appropriate to helping them reach their goals.”

Called the N-word for the first time

With 21,000 undergrads and only 146 Black students, a campus body composed of one Black student for every 144 non-Black students creates what some Black students describe as a harsh, at times scary, environment.

CalMatters spoke with about a dozen Black Cal Poly students, six on the record, about their experiences with racism. Most of the interviews took place across two days in early November at Cal Poly’s Black Academic Excellence Center, a 609-square-foot student lounge. It’s a tight space regularly filled with 15 students who squeeze in to study, nap, plan their course schedules and socialize. The stories of overt racism some students shared with CalMatters were familiar to those relayed by other Black students in the room.

After grudgingly joining her friends to attend a fraternity party at an off-campus apartment building in February, Jasmine Phipps felt like an outcast and stepped away from the main throng of students. She sat down on a bench in the building courtyard and got on the phone with her dad, with whom she speaks often, when she recalls hearing someone say, “Get out of here,” followed by the N-word. The slur was hurled at her by three white males who appeared to be students, she said.


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