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KCBX Two-Way: Cal Poly SLO has the lowest rate of Black students among all CA public universities

Flickr member Rob Bulmahn

A new investigation released by CalMatters found that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the most selective university in the California State University (CSU) system, enrolled only 146 undergraduate Black students this fall. That gives it the lowest rate of enrolled Black students among all of California's public universities.

Cal Poly also enrolls the smallest share of low-income students of any CSU or UC, and it trails other UCs and CSUs in other diversity measures as well. Black students quoted in the story also describe a racist environment.

KCBX's Amanda Wernik spoke with CalMatters' higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn about his reporting. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

This story is part of a larger series on how Cal State Universities are supporting — or, not supporting — their Black students. What have you found so far? 

In the CSU, just 4% of students are Black. What I found in my reporting with the CSU, more broadly, is that is has really wide gaps in graduation rates between Black students and other students. Now, Cal Poly doesn't have the same problems as the rest of the CSU. Cal Poly has a really high graduation rate, and this past year, Black students actually had a higher graduation rate than other students at Cal Poly. But what's fascinating — and mortifying, and all the emotions — is that Cal Poly only has 146 Black students among 21,000 undergraduates. That is a much lower percentage than anywhere else across the UC and CSU.

What are the factors keeping the number of Black students enrolled at Cal Poly so low?

Cal Poly attracts the smallest percentage of applicants who are Black than any other UC or CSU. It's been that way for a decade, but then I also spoke to the students and to academics, and there are two ways to talk about Cal poly's reputation, according to the people I spoke to. One is that students who apply to colleges do their homework, and they may see that Cal Poly has a really small share of Black students. So, they decide they want to go somewhere they are more represented. As one scholar said, and I'm going to paraphrase, he said, ‘the numbers indicate that I'm not a priority.’ And then, there's also experiences of racism for Black students on campus. Two of the students I spoke to described being called the n-word by their white peers during campus events. But then there are these other instances that aren't as overt; it's just a constant gaze on them. It's also worth pointing out that the Black students that I spoke to credited the Black community on campus for keeping them there- for being the emotional and social support that they need. I quoted one student in the story saying that if it weren't for the Black Student Union, then they would have transferred out.

You reached out to the university for this story. How did they respond to your reporting? 

They didn't grant me any interviews during my reporting. I think I asked five times, and I was rebuffed. They did send two lengthy written statements, adding up to 1,800 words, and they noted all the things that they've been doing in recent years. They've hired more Black faculty and other faculty who are skilled in matters of diversity. They have this Bias Response Team where individuals on campus can report incidents of bias, and then this team investigates it. The campus is expanding financial aid opportunities. They partner with some donors to create scholarships specifically for Black students. So, the campus listed a lot of things that it's doing. But you know, at least with the data, the numbers aren't moving.

The original CalMatters article is available here. A copy of the email response sent back by a Cal Poly SLO representative in response to the story is available here.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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