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Three Black students sit on a lawn smiling. Two high five each other.

California might have a new designation for “Black-Serving Institutions.”

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A California bill, which passed the state Senate last week and is making its way to the Assembly, would recognize colleges and universities in the state that enroll high numbers of Black students and take intentional steps to better serve them. The bill would establish a formal “Black-Serving Institution” designation for these institutions.

Colleges and universities are eligible for the designation if they enroll a student body that’s at least 10 percent Black, or has at least 1,500 Black students, and take various measures to support them, including drafting a Black student success plan (and allocating resources to that plan), fostering a “robust” African American studies program and cocurricular educational activities or affinity centers for Black students.

Higher ed institutions applying for the five-year designation would have to submit graduation rates for all students and Black students for the past three academic years. Community colleges that apply are required to provide transfer rates to four-year colleges and the numbers of degrees and certificates earned, as well.

California senator Steven Bradford, who authored the bill, said a goal of the designation is to signal to Black prospective students which institutions offer meaningful supports for them and have sizable Black student communities. And once these students are enrolled, he believes these campuses will be especially well-poised to retain and graduate them.

“Being in an environment that they know it’s inclusive and welcoming, that it’s culturally sensitive, helps in making that experience … far more successful for them,” Bradford said. “I think this would be a great opportunity to help boost enrollment, and more importantly, help boost graduation.”

California currently has one historically Black professional school, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and no undergraduate historically Black colleges or universities (though there have been recent attempts to start an HBCU satellite campus in San Francisco). The state also has no predominantly Black institutions, also known as PBIs, a federal designation that requires Black students make up at least 40 percent of the student body.

Sacramento State University president J. Luke Wood, who helped shape the California designation, said the whole West coast and Midwest are devoid of these other types of institutions.

He believes if Black prospective students know there are local institutions dedicated to supporting them, they’re less likely to leave the region for colleges elsewhere that offer such supports. He already sees his university as “Black-serving” with upwards of 2,000 Black students, more than any other California State University campus, and a new Black Honors College launching this fall.

“We would want everyone to have an experience with an HBCU if they can, but I have students here who don’t have the ability to go somewhere else, either for financial reasons or for family reasons,” Wood said. “And I think it’s a shame that, up until now, we haven’t had a designation or institution that we can say serves you. We can say to our Asian students, ‘We’re here to serve you because we’re an AANAPISI [Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution].’ We can say to our Latinx students, ‘We're here to serve you because we’re an HSI [Hispanic-Serving Institution].’”

Keith Curry, president of Compton College and also a driver behind the bill, noted that it’s hard to meet the 40 percent federal enrollment threshold to become a predominantly Black institution right now, given how much Black student enrollment has declined statewide and nationally over the past decade. The thresholds for other types of minority-serving institutions are much lower. For example, Hispanic-serving institutions are required to have 25 percent Latino enrollment and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions only need 10 percent of their student bodies to be made up of those racial and ethnic groups.)

Meanwhile, higher ed institutions nationally lost roughly 600,000 Black students between 2011 and 2019, a 29 percent enrollment drop, according to a 2023 report by Level UP, a network of academics and others focused on higher ed access for Black students. California’s Black student enrollment numbers aren’t any more heartening.

“We’re in a crisis,” Curry said. “We have to look at best practices. We have to look at who is serving Black students effectively” so those colleges can become “examples to other colleges, not just in California, but also nationally.”

What he likes about the potential California designation is “it’s not just about the percentage,” he added. “ It’s about how you serve those students.” It’s about “actually what are you doing to support this student population?”

Gina Garcia, a professor in the school of education at the University of California, Berkeley, said the designation is a welcome development.

“As a scholar of Hispanic-serving institutions, I very much think of HSIs as reparations for long-term harm that this country has done to Hispanic students,” she said. There are also “long-term reparations owed to Black students in this state … The numbers show there’s great inequities across all three public systems.”

The symbolism of the bill is especially meaningful at a time when a slew of other states, such as Texas and Florida, have passed bills limiting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, said Andrés Castro Samayoa, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College whose research focuses on minority-serving institutions.

Some states have been “so deliberate in their efforts to minimize the way that we’re even thinking about racial difference, about the importance of diversity and inclusion” such that this bill lies in stark contrast, he said.

He highlighted that the designation mirrors the “Seal of Excelencia,” after which the bill was originally modelled. The seal is a certification bestowed on universities that prove to be exemplars in serving Latino students by Excelencia in Education, an organization focused on Latino student success.

Castro Samayoa noted that while it’s important to shine a spotlight on institutions delivering positive outcomes for students of color, the designation doesn’t come with the additional funding that federal designations do.

“I’m glad that we can have this recognition, at least amplifying this ability of the institutions doing the labor of supporting Black students—and let’s take it a step further,” he said. “Let’s also think about not just symbolic recognition but also enhancing their resources.”

Curry said whether or not funding is a possibility in the future, he hopes the designation sends a message to donors and foundations that these institutions are worthy of investment. He also sees the designation as a potential model for other states.

His institution would be a prime candidate for the designation. Black students made up almost a quarter of Compton College’s student body of 4,918 students in fall 2023, according to California Community College system data.

“I’m ready to submit my application today,” Curry said.

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