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Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
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Lagging behind: Cal State's education of Black students

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

The California State University system struggles to do right by its Black students, who graduate at far lower rates than the systemwide average. It’s a major blemish for what’s otherwise a modern success story — a constellation of 23 universities providing more than 400,000 undergraduate students annually with affordable degree opportunities that lead to strong wages.

But for nearly 20 years, the Cal State system has graduated Black students at rates 20 percentage points lower than its white students. That is the reality despite the campuses’ vows to close equity gaps, including a much-ballyhooed goal to completely eliminate disparities in graduation rates among ethnic and racial groups by 2025.

And how Cal State calculates its equity gap obscures the numbers for Black students. It includes all under-represented students — Black, Latino and Native American — in one overall rate. Failing to break out the rates for Black students hides how much they lag behind white and other students.

Why the Cal State system struggles to graduate Black students is a question with many possible answers. Not enough Black faculty, therapists and resource centers for Black students. A state ban on affirmative action that limited the direct support campuses could provide Black students, though some scholars say campuses could do more to support Black students without flouting state law.

And even if a campus does graduate Black students at relatively high levels, such as California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, some Black students still speak of alienation, experiences with racism, and longing for more Black students to learn alongside them. That alienation at Cal Poly has a root cause: The distinguished campus last fall enrolled just 146 Black undergraduate students — just 0.7% of the undergraduate student body. Cal Poly trails all California public universities in the percentage of Black applicants it attracts and enrolls. Campus leaders point to numerous efforts to improve race relations and its image, but so far none of that has led to a greater share of Black students applying and staying.