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

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

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.

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Hundreds of Cal Poly students filed into an emergency town hall put on by the Black Student Union after an incident of blackface at the university surfaced in 2018.

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.

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Photo by Julie Leopo for CalMatters
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Jasmine Phipps, 19, a sophomore communications student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on Nov. 2, 2022.

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.

The verbal assault Phipps described underscored a trying year for her.

“Last year, if it wasn’t for (Black Academic Excellence Center) and (Black Student Union), I would have transferred out because the staring was a lot. Those little whispers, you hear whispers all the time,” said Phipps, who’s now a sophomore. “And then it gets to a point where you can look at somebody when they’re walking by, but you don’t have to break your neck to look at them. … there’s not that many Black students on campus but I’m pretty sure you’ve seen Black people before.”

Freshman Nehemiah Tshishimbi avoids campus parties. In part because he’s not the partying type. But the construction management major also wants to avoid a racist experience — and he’s heard enough stories to stay clear.

Tshishimbi, who identifies as African American, expressed his struggles with befriending white students. Unlike with his Black friends on campus, he hides the full dynamism of his personality around white students, in part because he fears that being Black and male is viewed as a threat — “more aggressive and more dangerous,” he said.

He gets along with white students, chiefly through Christian clubs at Cal Poly. But without common hobbies, Black students may struggle “feeling connected with the white students on campus,” he said.

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Photo by Julie Leopo for CalMatters
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Nehemiah Tshishimbi, 18, a first-year student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on Nov. 2, 2022.

Kianah Corey, who identifies as Black and Filipino, also said she was called the N-word. She entered Cal Poly in 2018 and played for the university’s softball team. She was a freshman on her third day on campus, she recalled, when a white female athlete from another Cal Poly team uttered the pejorative twice during a drinking game.

Corey was the only person of color there and felt powerless to speak up. “No one said anything” in her defense, she said, adding that it was her first time being called the N-word.

“That day literally changed the trajectory of my entire life,” Corey said. She switched her major from liberal studies to child development, with an interest in how students cope with trauma. Now she’s earning a master’s in psychology at Cal Poly. She’s also a paid assistant coordinator for the Black Academic Excellence Center.

If other Black students were in the room with her that day, being called the N-word “would have never happened,” Corey said.

Other times, “I was the Black token,” she said. In one example, she questioned why she was in the center of a softball team marketing image “when I played the least innings out of all field players,” she wrote in an Instagram story this year.

Unlike the other Black students interviewed for this story, Eyasu Betwos spent most of his life in Ethiopia, where Black people by far are the majority. “Living back home for all those years prepared me to just be confident,” the fourth-year computer science major said. “I act like I belong everywhere I go,” something he said many of his Black peers at Cal Poly feel they can’t do.

But when two seemingly drunk white men followed him as he was walking home after a football game in September, Betwos noticed.

“‘Hey, look, there’s a Black kid,’” he remembers them saying. “‘Let’s scare him.’” Betwos said the two men, who appeared to be in their 50s, crossed the road to his side of the street. He was nervous, he said, but joked with them. Eventually they peeled off at an intersection and left Betwos alone.

Because he’s a sports photographer for campus teams, he’s often leaving work at night. Before, he’d walk back home. Now he rides the shuttle. Like Phipps and Corey, he never reported any racist incidents to campus authorities.

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Photo by Julie Leopo for CalMatters
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Mikayla Santiago is a junior psychology student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Nov. 2, 2022.

“Cal Poly kind of markets itself as having this sort of safe, non-urban college environment,” said Thanayi M. Jackson, a Black Cal Poly history professor who focuses on politics and race. But referring to past incidents of racial animus on campus, she said “This doesn’t seem safe for a Black family.”

Phipps and others previously expressed doubt campus authorities would do much with their testimonials. “When it comes to white males, it’s … their word against mine,” she said. “The Black community in here, they supported me.”

Cal Poly administrators also turned down CalMatters’ request for a separate interview to discuss the campus response to racist acts on campus. Lazier, the campus spokesperson, provided another 600-word written response to specifically address the campus climate, which CalMatters is sharing.

“We unequivocally abhor and denounce racist speech and actions,” he wrote, noting the campus hired a consultant to evaluate the campus cultural climate before the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the conclusions in the 2019 report was a feeling among students and staff that the university is a “good old-boy school” and known as “a White, wealthy school, where your diversity is not welcome,” as one respondent quoted in the report put it. The report authors proposed numerous recommendations, including a diversity training program and investing more in programs that support diversity efforts.

“That follow-up work is ongoing through the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” Lazier wrote.

Even before the report, the campus was seemingly aware it had a bias problem. In 2014, Cal Poly created the Bias Incident Response Team. According to Lazier, the bias team meets “as needed” to “evaluate incidents for policy violations, resource provisions, and appropriate resolutions.” The nature and frequency of those reported incidents are unclear. “The team doesn’t maintain statistics on its reports,” Lazier wrote in a November 2022 email.

In the 600-word email, Lazier wrote that students should report any racist incident to campus officials. However, “it is important to note the limitations the university faces in disciplining any campus community member for racist speech.” As a public institution, Cal Poly is “bound by law to uphold the First Amendment rights of those who study, work, visit, or live on our campus,” Lazier wrote — sentiments similar to what the campus told the public in 2018 after the outcry over a student wearing Blackface.

A senior lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union agrees public campuses are limited in what they can do about racist speech on campus, but in some cases, a university can take action. “If the use of the N-word is targeted and repeated, a public university may be able to discipline a student for harassment,” wrote Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, in an email. “In some circumstances, the use of the word could be part of a pattern of speech that constituted unprotected threats.”

Cal Poly isn’t on Black students’ lists

Several counselors at nonprofits who advise high school students on attending college told CalMatters that Cal Poly isn’t on the radar of Black students because the campus has few Black students to begin with.

“I think that that demographic of 1% African American students dissuades our African American students from applying,” said Mimi Bolton, lead advisor at Neighborhood Academic Initiative, run by the University of Southern California. The Black students she’s mentored who are interested in engineering — Cal Poly’s most popular type of degree — can find campuses where engineering is strong and where there is more diversity. “All of those factors make that school further down a lot of our students’ list, if it’s on the list at all,” Bolton said. Cal Poly may also be less attractive to students who don’t want to pursue the sciences and business — among the school’s most popular majors, Bolton added.

But Cal Poly Pomona, another established Cal State polytechnic, also graduates a high share of business and engineering students and attracts more Black students than the San Luis Obispo campus.

Ashley Williams advises 30 to 40 Black high school students and she doesn’t hear them bring up Cal Poly as a destination. She is assistant director of a UCLA program where students eye many schools.

Williams thinks students with the grades to enter Cal Poly would rather attend a UC for the name recognition and the larger Black student population, or go out-of-state to historically Black colleges and universities.

“If it’s a competitive Cal State, they may be thinking, ‘Why do that? I’ll go to a UC,’” Williams said.

One scholar thinks Cal Poly’s low number of enrolled Black students alone paints a picture of a racist climate that can dissuade other Black students from applying. “Racism, especially at an institutional level, doesn’t require any form of intent and doesn’t even require individual actors,” said Whitney N. L. Pirtle, a sociologist at UC Merced who studies race and ethnicity. “I think the numbers (at Cal Poly) are evidence enough.”

Whether Cal Poly’s reputation for racist incidents is another impediment to attracting Black students is an open question. Among the Black students at the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, “the answer is no — students are not intentionally avoiding Cal Poly because of any incidents they’ve heard about,” emailed Kim Thomas-Barrios, who runs the initiative, among other duties. Racist experiences can occur anywhere, on or off campus, she wrote.

But Jackson, the Cal Poly professor, recounted a conversation with a Black high school student that suggests Black students pay attention to campus climate. After she took part in a series of lectures for visiting Black high school students in March, Jackson recalls one student telling her that “this was a really nice event, you brought out all your Black folks, but you know, Cal Poly, y’all don’t do anything when people are in Blackface and have racial incidents on campus, and so you’re gonna have to do a lot more than that if you want us to come to Cal Poly.” Jackson stressed this wasn’t a direct quote, but it was a “pretty darn close paraphrase.”

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Flickr member youngthousands
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Cal Poly consistently ranks as the whitest CSU in California.

Cal Poly’s reputation can travel along a “whisper network,” Pirtle said. People talk, whether the data captures it or not. And though her sons aren’t yet in high school, Cal Poly “would not be a place I would want them to go” given its enrollment and applications data, said Pirtle, who’s Black.

In his first email, Lazier, the Cal Poly spokesperson, didn’t attribute the campus’s struggles to attract Black students to campus climate, but rather to its cost. He noted that Cal Poly ends up being more expensive because the UCs “have been able to offer more financial aid to students with lower incomes,” he wrote, which he argues attracts a larger share of Black and other students of color.

But part of the reason is that Cal Poly charges nearly $3,000 more in student fees than the Cal State system average. Those higher costs eat into the state and federal financial aid students get. To better compete with the UCs on affordability, this year Cal Poly rolled out a new student fee plan that raises costs for wealthier students and then uses some of those revenues to give lower-income students more financial aid.

Cal Poly’s markedly low percentage of Black students is even more startling when focusing on transfer students. Only two times in the past 15 years has this campus of 21,000 undergraduate students enrolled 10 or more new Black transfer students from California’s community colleges, according to fall enrollment data. Students from community colleges contribute a large share of the diversity at UC and Cal State campuses. But just 11% of all of Cal Poly’s undergraduate students hail from community colleges — far below the rate at all other Cal State campuses and all but one UC campus (UC Merced, which is among the most diverse public universities in the state).

When they were submitting college applications, some Cal Poly Black students didn’t know about the university until the last minute. Babatola didn’t decide to apply until two hours before the application deadline and had learned of the school’s existence just a few weeks prior.

Only after being admitted did Babatola learn of the campus’s tiny Black population and its past history of racist incidents. That unnerved her, but after liking an Instagram post from the campus’s Black Student Union, Babatola was quickly folded into the Black student community. She was invited to one event, but couldn’t make it. Still, her point person at Black Student Union continued to text her regularly.

“Knowing at least I already had found the community,” plus Cal Poly’s relative affordability and good academic reputation, compelled Babatola to enroll, she said.

Cal Poly isn’t the only non-urban CSU or UC

Some explanations Lazier gave for the dearth of Black students at Cal Poly unravel upon closer scrutiny. For instance, he wrote that a state ban on affirmative action prevents Cal Poly from considering race as a factor in admissions. But that ban applies to all public universities in California as well, all of which attract more Black students. And yes, the campus is in a heavily white area of the state that’s removed from major metro centers, as he noted. UCLA and San Diego State, for example, attract many students who are local. So does Cal Poly Pomona.

But other public universities such as UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, and California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt have similar local diversity constraints and still manage to attract a greater share of Black students — as applicants and as students. And unlike other Cal State campuses that enroll students who typically grew up near campus, Cal Poly attracts interest statewide and beyond. In fact, about 18% of Cal Poly’s undergraduates are out-of-state students, quadruple the average for the entire Cal State system. The UC systemwide average is also 18%, but, again, the system’s individual campuses attract and enroll more Black students.

Cal Poly’s location “is not a satisfying” answer for why it attracts so few Black students, said Hans Johnson, a senior fellow focused on higher education issues at the Public Policy Institute of California.

As a prestigious institution, “it serves not just a local population, but a widespread population in the state and yet, Black students are significantly underrepresented at Cal Poly,” Johnson said.

The only Black student in the class

That there are few Black students on campus also hurts their education, limiting the caliber of class discussions and creating extra social pressures.

The Black students CalMatters interviewed say they often are the only ones in their classes who are Black. That puts pressure on them to carry an outsized load in group discussions. “You’re the person to explain the whole story for all the Blacks,” Phipps said.

Third-year student Mikayla Santiago, who’s African American and Puerto Rican, counts four times she’s been in a class with another Black student — and never in any of her major classes tied to animal science or psychology. Without a Black person in class with her, she feels a dual burden.

“Is everyone looking at me, trying to gauge how I’m feeling?” said Santiago, who’s also the Black Student Union co-president. At the same time, “I’m also trying to gauge how I’m feeling.”

Santiago, who, like Phipps, works part-time at the excellence center, is certain that more Black students in the same class would push the conversation about race in politics and society beyond a surface-level understanding. It’d be less “I’m shocked that Black people have gone through this,” she said. More Black students would also motivate her academically, likening the responsibility to a “family tie.”

Babatola felt diminished in a political science class when a professor dismissed her point that Black students from Africa and African Americans, many who trace their history to U.S. slavery, have different social experiences.

“There’s trauma that comes with being African American that I will never understand,” said Babatola, who was born in Nigeria. She remembers the professor saying, “Well, you look the same.” She expected a political science professor to be more attuned to the nuances of cultural identity.

That the students feel this weight makes sense from a research perspective, said Comeaux, the UC Riverside scholar. “When you have a critical mass of Black students in a classroom, the Black student doesn’t have to be the representative for all things Black, right?” he said. “They don’t have to be that token student.”

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Angel Russell
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Hundreds of people gather outside of the SLO County Courthouse to support Black Lives Demonstrator Tianna Arata in 2020.

For Jackson, the Cal Poly history professor, the subject of race becomes an abstraction without Black students in the class. That can lead to some white students feeling guilty about the caustic U.S. history of race relations rather than dealing with the experiences of Black people who endured the systemic racism, Jackson said. She offers what she admits is a counter-intuitive argument: rather than creating friction in the classroom, with Black students participating in class discussions, there’s a “de-centering of the white response,” Jackson said.

The absence of Black students is “jarring,” Jackson said. “Sometimes (that) absence is just super loud.”

How these experiences translate into students’ graduation rates is unclear. As CalMatters has previously reported, Cal Poly joined almost all other Cal State campuses with long-lingering and wide gaps in graduation rates between Black students and students from other demographic groups. But that trend swung the other way this most recent year: Black students at Cal Poly posted the highest six-year graduation rates of any racial or ethnic group in 2022, according to new system data. About 93% of Black students graduated after six years this year — higher than the campus average of 86%.

Such swings are common at Cal Poly: Because the campus has so few Black students, graduating a few more students in one year dramatically increases its six-year graduation rate for those students. Last year it graduated 28 Black students. This year it graduated 24. That pales in comparison to the roughly 4,000 students the school graduates annually.

A ‘small’ but ‘mighty’ support system for Black students

An obvious solution to ending the isolation Black students experience on campus is to attract more Black students. But it’s not that easy.

“Do I want more Black students to come here and face the racism that we have all faced as Black human beings on this campus, and so our Black population grows?” asked Corey. “Or do I tell them to not come and then have the ones that are here still suffer from the racism?”
Without a doubt, she wants more Black students to come.

One approach to attract more Black students? “We lie,” said Babatola. “We just skirt around what a lot of us are thinking and what a lot of us have experienced.”

But arguably Cal Poly is also “lying” about the level of diversity among its students by using marketing images that critics say give the impression the university enrolls far more Black students than it actually does.

In past years, Babatola and her peers would tell prospective students of the campus’s strong academics, the closely formed friendships — while papering over the day-to-day frustrations of being Black at Cal Poly.

However, this year, “I’ve been really trying to work on being more honest about the realities of campus,” she said.

Cal Poly has a lot to offer, students said: ample internship opportunities, a learn-by-doing method of teaching, high average salaries for students who graduate, to name a few.

Lazier, the Cal Poly spokesperson, also suggested that more Black students on campus would improve the experiences for Black students. “This truly is a work in progress,” he wrote. “And campus culture and the diversity of our student body and work force go hand in hand. As we improve in one area, we will see positive effects in the other, and vice versa.”

Phipps has cried at times and questioned why she came to Cal Poly, but she isn’t leaving. Instead, she feels an obligation to make Cal Poly a more welcoming place for Black students.

Already she has a great group of friends: “Small, but we’re very mighty,” Phipps said. “They’ll help me get through this.”

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource and before that a program manager at the Education Writers Association. Mikhail was born in the Soviet Union and has a master's degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. He is based in Los Angeles. Pell grants and work-study helped pay for his undergraduate degree at Union College.
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