Photo: Alison Yin/EdSource
Black students at lunch at Laney College in Oakland.

Black students in California have shown progress in enrolling and completing college in recent years but still lag behind other racial and ethnic groups.

That is the finding of a new report which blames those graduation gaps on inadequate high school preparation, poverty and campuses that don’t have enough black faculty to serve as mentors, among other causes.

“Growing racial equity gaps obstruct the promise of educational opportunity for black students and diminish the economic potential of our state,” said the study by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit advocacy organization.

The new report, entitled “State of Higher Education for Black Californians,” shows an increase in the percentage of black high school students who complete the college prep courses required for admission to a University of California or the California State University. That rose from 27 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2017, yet remains behind Latinos, whites and Asians.

While their enrollments are on the rise for starting college, black students are finishing college at lower rates than whites, according to the report. For example, blacks’ six-year completion rate at UC was 75 percent compared to 86 percent for whites, 43 percent compared to 67 percent at CSU and 37 percent compared to 54 percent at community colleges.

The study calls on state and education leaders to set specific statewide goals for black student achievement in high school and college; establish a strategy to help black students who started college but didn’t finish to return and earn a degree; improve financial aid and ensure that community colleges place more students in credit-bearing courses with academic support rather than no-credit remedial classes. The report also recommends that colleges create a more welcoming environment in part by having more black faculty and staff.

Without such efforts, black students’ college enrollment and completion numbers are likely to keep slowly improving but still place them behind most other groups, according to Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. The state government and campuses must “really target solutions to improve outcomes for black students, to really close these gaps,” she said.

Changes in remedial education may help boost black students’ completion rates in two public sectors, the study emphasized. At California’s community colleges starting this year, the use of high school grades rather than entrance exams to determine whether a student needs to take a non-credit remedial course may increase black student success but the reform should be monitored to ensure it is working, the study said. And similarly, the recent end to no-credit remedial courses at CSU should result in better graduation statistics.

Siqueiros noted in an interview that two-thirds of black adults between 25 and 64 in California attended college at some time in their lives. However, many drop-out, resulting in only a third earning an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to the report. Asians and whites earn degrees at much higher rates and Latinos at slightly lower rates.

Having so many black students leave without a degree “is a big problem,” she said. Colleges and universities need to improve what they are doing to keep current students enrolled and to reach out to former students, she said. “We need to figure out how do we pull them back in and how do we help them finish,” she said.

Blacks comprise about 6 percent of California’s population between ages 18 and 24. Compared to that, black students are underrepresented at UC (2 percent) and CSU (4 percent) while close to representation at community colleges (7 percent) and private non-profit colleges (6 percent.) Yet the report says it is more worrisome that black students are overrepresented (10 percent) at private for-profit schools, which as a sector have high drop-out and student loan default rates. In a webinar about the report, education experts said that for-profit colleges heavily recruit black adults with campaigns that emphasize supposed paths to better jobs. 

“The over-representation of black students at for-profit college is especially disturbing given that graduation rates at many for-profit institutions are notoriously low,” the report said. It noted that only 7 percent of black students graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit in California within six years of starting.

As it has done in the past, the Campaign urged that California’s public institutions of higher education hire more black faculty, in part to serve as mentors and role models to African-American students. It said that: “Unwelcoming classroom environments influenced by racism and stereotypes by faculty and fellow students lead to lower levels of academic engagement for black students.”

The Campaign issued a similar report in November about Latino students and expects to issue reports on Asian/Pacific Island students and Native Americans later this year. All its studies are based on federal, state and institutional data. The students self-identify as black or African-American in school enrollment forms and surveys.

The study also called for the repeal of Proposition 209, which California voters approved in 1996 to forbid race as a factor in admissions to the state’s public colleges. In the years right after that vote, the numbers of black and Latino students fell dramatically at UC. In recent years, they have mainly rebounded and for Latinos gone beyond that level, in part due to the rising percentage of Latinos among the state’s high school graduates. Yet the report said that the restriction on affirmative action still hurts black and Latino students as competition for UC enrollment has gotten stiffer.

In a related matter, the National Center for Education Statistics released its latest study showing educational achievements among  racial and ethnic groups in the country. Like the California report, it documented gaps affecting black students. Among them, it showed that the percentage of blacks between ages 18 and 24 who enrolled in college nationwide had risen over the past decade or so to 36 percent but that was still behind whites, Latinos and Asians. Similar patterns persisted in graduation rates as well.

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