Cal State's New Approach

June 26, 2006

About three years ago, Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the mammoth California State University system, started to see a theme in his visits to schools with large minority populations. “I’d say, Well, are you all taking algebra?” he recalls. “And there was just this stare like, ‘Waddya’ mean? Why would I do that?’ They had no idea that you apply to college October or November the year before.”

It hadn’t occurred to Reed “that this huge underserved population,” he says, essentially wasn’t even in the ballpark in terms of knowing how to aim at higher education. “There was no connection to what they were doing, starting from about sixth grade,” recalls Reed.

So Cal State did an economic impact study to see what the system would look like down the road as the underserved became a greater portion of the population. California colleges are far more diverse than those of many other states, but they aren’t even close to reflecting the state’s diversity.The Latino population is booming -- among state residents far more than in California colleges -- and the number of black students at California colleges has risen 24 percent in the last decade, but is down 15 percent from a high of 172,000, in 2002. The numbers were distressing. And they still are.

Currently, according to U.S. Census data, Latinos are about 33 percent of all California residents, and their population is young. By 2050, California is projected to be over half Latino. This spring, about 38 percent of high school graduates in California will be Latino. According to Reed, only about 17 percent of those -- and 19 percent of black students -- will have taken the required courses and have the minimum grades and test scores necessary for admission to Cal State. And all that is only from the half of Latino students who didn’t drop out.

Numbers like those “said to me, ‘you better get out there and figure out how to engage those communities,’ ” says Reed.

Californians amended their Constitution in 1996 to bar affirmative action by public universities and other state agencies, so institutions can’t hope to increase minority participation simply by changing admissions standards. But, says Reed, “I always figured that Proposition 209 didn’t say you couldn’t inform people about their opportunities.”

So he and his staff took to the streets. “We decided, let’s go meet with them in their communities,” remembers Reed. “It’s a natural to go to the African American churches; in the Asian communities, the community centers are a very important place for them.” He also felt that the Native American population -- which has the lowest graduation rates of any group in the nation -- would also need some special attention.

Traditionally, colleges have welcomed minority students to their campuses for special events, but increasingly institutions are realizing the need to emphasize the “out” in “outreach,” as in “outside of campus.”

Damon Williams, assistant vice provost for multicultural and international affairs at the University of Connecticut, says colleges are awakening to the fact that challenges they face in minority enrollment stem from a complex suite of causes and issues. “This California State approach is showing a desire to interface with more parts of the system,” Williams said. “Getting folks out into those communities is a great strategy. It allows us to use our greatest asset, and that is our knowledge.” Williams added that the success of most students hinges to some extent on whether they feel some sense of community at their institution, and that going out into neighborhoods is the first step to helping students establish a sense of connection.

At Cal State, initial connections begat more connections, and before long Reed and presidents of the university's campuses were getting the all-important endorsements from community leaders in underserved areas.

“We had black ministers, we had an elected Vietnamese legislator, we’ve had very prominent Latinos … they give us the OK,’” says Reed. American Indian officials were paying attention, too, after he announced his intentions for a series of meeting with tribal leaders across the state, which continue to this day.

California, of course, is merely at the frontier of demographic trends that are certain to take hold around the nation, so many administrators could likely use similar revelations soon.

“I look at us as a place where we can be doing experiments,” says Reed. “If they work, others can follow us.”

If they don’t work, it could be “scary,” according to Reed. If current college-going rates for underrepresented groups persist, as their proportion of the population increases, “we’re going to see the personal income decline in the state, state revenue declines, deterioration of public infrastructure … it won’t be a very pretty place to live. It’ll be this huge divide between the haves and have-nots.”

In a special report that will run throughout the week, Inside Higher Ed will spotlight the efforts of California State -- which has 405,000 students on 23 campuses -- to reach out to underserved students, while also exploring some ideas for minority outreach that have worked at other institutions.

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