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California state lawmakers and Sacramento State leaders smile for a photo in the state Capitol.

Sacramento State received a commemorative designation from the California Legislative Black Caucus as a Black-serving institution, the first in the state, to recognize the university’s efforts to support Black students’ success.

California State University, Sacramento

When it comes to student success, learners from historically marginalized backgrounds, including racial and ethnic minorities, often face structural challenges to degree completion. To promote equity in who’s retaining, persisting and graduating, many colleges and universities have created identity-specific interventions and supports, focused on these students’ lived experiences and cultural backgrounds.

In 2023, the California State University system made a commitment to supporting Black students’ success and published a report with 13 recommendations to promote Black excellence across its 23 member institutions.

California State University, Sacramento, a CSU campus, is implementing a new and innovative strategy for Black and African American learners through the Black Honors College.

In this episode of Voices of Student Success, host Ashley Mowreader speaks with Luke Wood, president of Sacramento State, to learn more about the launch of the honors college and the need for institutional supports for Black students.

An edited version of the podcast appears below.

Listen to previous episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

Sacramento State University president Luke Wood smiles for a headshot in a black suit coat, green tie and Sac State pin on his lapel

Luke Wood, president of Sacramento State University

California State University, Sacramento

Inside Higher Ed: Can you give me the 30,000-foot view on where did the idea [for the Black Honors College] come from? Where did the conversation start?

Wood: The conversation began with a CSU systemwide effort.

CSU stands for the California State University system. It’s 23 campuses that are spread across the state of California, large public institutions that serve higher education for our state.

There was a state-level effort to try to understand how we’re serving Black and African American students and what we needed to do to be better than where we’re at right now. We had representatives from each of these different campuses—they came together, they did data collection, focus groups, interviews, all kinds of stuff to have a better understanding of what’s going on. And then they released a report called the “Black Student Success” report, with recommendations for how we’re going to improve Black student success. Thirteen recommendations overall, an allusion to the 13th Amendment. And then eight recommendations that focus specifically on what colleges and universities should be doing

The things that are identified as recommendations are things that make logical sense. Like … you have to have a plan for outreach, you have to have a plan for enrollment and retention, you need to be thinking about how you’re investing in Black faculty and Black staff to ensure that they’re able to be there to support Black students in the way that they can. We need to be thinking about culturally relevant teaching.

Things that that a general public would understand—like, these are important things for us to do to make sure that we’re supporting students.

Then, every single campus was tasked with looking at those recommendations and saying, “Here are the things that we’re going to do to implement this report.” And for Sacramento State, instead of identifying a whole bunch of things, we identified one thing, and one thing only, that we’re going to do well, and that’s to have an honors college specifically designed to serve students who are interested in Black history, life and culture.

What we’re excited about is, this is the first time that this has ever been done. An honors college outside the HBCU that has this type of focus is incredibly unique, the only, the first, and it stands out in that way. And we want to make sure that it’s the environment that our students deserve.

So this fall, we welcome our first class, 75 students. In spring, we do another 50. And then we expand from there. Our goal is to have over 1,000 students who are part of the honors college.

What we’ve tried to do is to create an experience within the experience. It’s an honors college; it’s its own campus within the university. They have 6,000 square feet of space where they have their own seminar room, conference [room], office suite and also a student center. They have their own administrative team. We’ve hired a dean of students, a director to oversee the operations of the program.

In addition to that, they have their own therapists, they have their own academic advisers, they have their own outreach team, so eight folks who are totally dedicated to supporting them, and then another 17 faculty members who are on release time. What happens is they’ll come into the honors college and all of their general education [courses] will be taught in the honors college with faculty members who have a demonstrated record of success in teaching and serving Black students, and through a curricular lens that centers Black people.

So imagine, in general education, you have to have your writing class, you have to have your math class, you have to have your class in political science—each one of those classes, but taught centering the Black experience as part of the learning environment, so that the students are being educated in an environment that’s totally designed specifically for them and their interests.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned this as a first nationally at a public university; especially in California this is a novel idea. What are some of the opportunities and challenges that come with building this from the ground up?

Wood: The opportunities are that it hasn’t been done. And so the challenge is that—it hasn’t been done.

We’re definitely in new space. But what we’re doing and how we’re focusing this is—I’ve done a lot of work focusing on Black student success. That’s my entire career as a professor at San Diego State [University]. And so we know what the research says that we should be doing.

We’re taking research-based practices, and we’re integrating them into one single intervention. This kind of model you’ve seen exists more so in K-12, with some of the magnet schools that have a specific focus in this area. This is the first time that this will be done at a college or university.

But also what makes this important is that, we do believe that you have to have places where Black students know, if you go to this institution, they’re going to be specifically focused on serving you. Because too often we know that their experiences in higher education aren’t ideal.

So let’s focus on those areas where we know we can be successful and then use that to create the environment that they deserve. I come from a systems perspective—maybe you’ve heard the quote from W. Edwards Deming and Paul Batalden, who say that “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results that it gets.” And so if that’s true, then the outcomes that most institutions have for Black students are a function of the institutions themselves. That’s why we wanted to create our own system within this system, because we’re more likely to be able to impact success in that way. And that’s why we’ve done this model.

Inside Higher Ed: The Black Honors College is structured around that research of what works well for retaining and supporting Black students. But it’s also open to any student who’s interested in pursuing this field. Who do you say is the ideal student for this experience?

Wood: A student who’s interested in Black history, life and culture and taking classes that really center that experience.

Now, you know, I imagine that the overwhelming majority of students who may be interested in this are from the Black community. But we’ve also received lots of interest from students who aren’t who are just really interested in learning about that. I think that, when people see the cohort that we have coming in, they’ll see kind of a balance of that, in terms of what that representation looks like. And I think that that’s important, because we want to make sure that we’re not being exclusionary in our efforts to be more inclusionary.

Our goal is to make sure that we create that environment where, no matter who you are, what community you come from, what background you are, that you want to go to this college because you’re going to have this experience that’s categorically different than anything else that exists out there. And you’re excited about that, and the learning that’s going to take place in that and the co-curricular activities are going to take place in that, and the residential living that’s going to occur with that. If a student is interested in that, and they are a higher-achieving student—have at least 3.5 GPA—then we would love to see them at Sacramento State.

Now we also have a pathway, though, for transfer students. Sacramento State, we’re a transfer-heavy institution—it’s part of our culture, has been for many years. We’ve got a lot of community colleges that really prioritize student sending their students here, because we’re kind of like Cheers: it’s that place where everybody knows your name, like, it really is like a caring environment and faculty members are really dedicated to students.

So we’ll bring 50 in this spring, and then we’ll go to 75 every year thereafter, transfer students. And what they’ll do, since their general education will be completed, is they will be doing a minor in leadership, and then we’ll also have another group that’s doing a specific focus in real estate and land use development. They’re basically different areas, and then there’s funding that we have that’s been set aside that will go along with each of those areas to help support the students.

Speaking of funding, for the students who are coming in as undergrads, anyone who’s coming in in engineering or computer science, we basically have scholarship dollars to cover them. And then for those who are coming in as a student studying any field, there’s about $1,500 off of tuition and fees that comes with that. We’re just trying to make sure that we’re providing the support that the students need and that we become that magnet.

Inside Higher Ed: CSU also gave $250,000 for this initiative. How is that funding going to be applied by the institution?

Wood: Oh, it’s going for the faculty! So that this, how we’re being able to pay for the absolute best faculty members that we have to basically come in and teach classes specifically for the students in the honors college.

We’re really grateful that the system did that for us and [showed] that initial investment because, you know, this is a pretty significant undertaking. This is a multimillion-dollar investment. When you think about what we’re doing in terms of the eight staff members, the 17 faculty members, the space that we’ve assigned the residential living, that we’ve set up all the supplementary instruction and tutoring, everything that’s going along with, it is a multimillion-dollar investment. So every piece that came from our system was very important to be able to make sure that that happened.

Inside Higher Ed: One of the interesting elements about the initiative is that it is an honors college. A lot of supports that we see for students, when it comes to retention and persistence, are looking at those bottom numbers, the ones that are really just hanging on for dear life to higher education. But this is for that top 10 percent, those students who are already really high achievers. What’s the difference in that? And how does that change the initiative and the supports offered to these students?

Wood: I think for a campus, you got to have a both-and strategy. You should have a strategy that meets your general student population—and in this case, your general Black population—and also have a strategy that that creates opportunities for those who are performing at a much higher level.

I think that that’s important because we want to meet students where they’re at, no matter who they are. Too often when we think about Black students, our initial thought isn’t to think about them as being academic or those who are intellectuals. It’s to think of them as being academically inferior, to be up to no good, dangerous, deviant, and to have some sort of lack of cultural interest in education.

In the work that we do, as scholars, we talked about that as distrust, disdain and disregard. So that’s how the world is seeing that. We need to create a different environment that instead extols their brilliance, their dignity and their morality. And that’s essentially what we’re trying to create here is that unique experience.

But one of the other things that I’ve seen come out of this is the number of students who are like, “Hey”—I mean, these are students currently here at Sacramento State—“I don’t qualify for the honors college, but I’m so happy that we have it, because it now it gives me something to look forward to, something to push for.” I also think that we have to put these hills on campuses so that people can see something that they can strive for. It creates a motivational environment where every single one of our Black students, whether they’re part of the Black Honors College or not, they’ll benefit from being in an environment where the resources are more intensive and where there’s an orientation towards academic achievement.

Inside Higher Ed: I just love how it emphasizes Black humanities and the study of Black culture because I think we, in higher education nationally, are having conversations about the value of humanities and those degrees. The power of having a space for students to not only succeed with their peers, but also be uplifted in this field, is really important as well, I think.

Wood: One hundred percent, it really is, and that’s what we have to do. And I, actually, I really want to see other campuses do the same thing.

I have to say that, ever since we’ve put this out there, the response has been overwhelming. The number of students who have applied, the number of campuses that are—community colleges or universities— that have reached out to say, “How are you structuring this? Can we replicate your model? What would that look like?”

And not only that, but also the number of community colleges that have signed guaranteed transfer agreements, because they want to make sure that their students have the first right to be able to get in here. Even some African countries, where their presidents have said, “We want to be able to send someone to this [college] from our country who’s going to be part of it.” So the level of interest, I think, has been really powerful.

And I think that’s because something like this is unique, it’s novel. And it’s a way of serving Black students in a way that doesn’t pathologize them or assume that they’re not as good, but it celebrates the fact that there are Black students—and many Black students—who are exemplary students. So let’s change that narrative. Let’s be more antideficit in our in our way of thinking about them and use this as an opportunity.

Inside Higher Ed: A larger conversation that’s happening in California is a recent bill that was introduced to create Black-serving institutions in the state. I wonder if you can talk about that and the institution’s perspective on what that would mean?

Wood: Senate Bill 1348 is being carried by Senator Steven Bradford, and essentially there’s three universities or institutions that are involved with this effort in terms of helping to support it. It’s Sacramento State, it’s Cal State Dominguez Hills and it’s Compton College.

And essentially what Bradford is doing is putting forth a new designation that would basically honor institutions in California that are serving Black students.

So let me tell you a little bit about where this comes from, because this is actually interesting, if you think about the federal landscape. Minority-serving institutions of the federal landscape, there’s two different types—you’ve got your mission-based minority serving institutions, like your historically Black colleges and universities, your tribal colleges. Their mission, their historical founding, their whole focus is on serving Black and Native communities. So that’s one subset that’s out there.

You can’t become an HBCU, you can’t really become a tribal college in that in that kind of way without some significant process. But you can’t become an HBCU at all, because it has to have been founded before a point in time.

Now separate from that, our enrollment-based institutions, you’ve got your Asian American Native American Pacific Islander–serving institution, which is 10 percent of your students have to be Asian or Pacific Islander. By the way, Sac State is 22 percent.

You also could have your Hispanic-serving institutions, that means at least 25 percent of your students have to be part of the Latinx community. At Sac State, that’s actually 37 percent.

And then there is another one that is for Black people. It’s called a predominately Black Institution, but it’s not 10 percent, it’s not 25 percent, it’s 40 percent. So 40 percent of your students have to identify as Black or African American. So it’s this really high threshold.

So then, so let’s say we look at HBCUs and PBIs, we lay them out over a map of the United States of America. And then we look, “OK, where are they?” They’re all concentrated in the same states.

What it means is the South is taken care of … but if you’re talking about the entire Western United States, and Midwestern, that entire section of the country, there’s not a single institution that can be known for serving Black people.

There’s been a bunch of folks who’ve been advocating, like, “We have to have something that that says to our Black students that you don’t have to go out of the state, away from your family, in order to be at an institution that’s committed to serving you.” Because I’m in California, we’re all Hispanic-serving institutions. We’re all Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander–serving institutions. We have all these different designations.

But we never had that same commitment to saying, like—I can go to my Asian students, “I’m here to support you,” my Latinx students, “I’m here to support you.” But as an institution that doesn’t have a designation for serving Black students, that’s not the same message.

So what Bradford’s bill does is it creates that. You got to have at least 10 percent of your students who have to identify as Black or African American, or at least 1,500 head count of Black students—which is really just getting at this notion that there has to be a critical mass—put that on par with the AANAPISI designation.

Then you also have to have part of your strategic plan that shows that you have a demonstrated focus on serving Black students. And so what that’s trying to do is, a lot of the critique of, for example, Hispanic-serving institutions is that you can be Hispanic enrolling—have a high population—but not necessarily Hispanic serving in terms of your actions.

What Bradford’s bill does is it tries to marry both the enrollment focus and the mission focus into one, to say, “Do you have a population of Black students, and are you truly committed to serving them?”

Now, so this is going to be transformative, because this is what I think you’re going to see happen: This is going to spread across the state of California. And then you’re going to start to see other places in the Western and Midwestern United States, and hopefully we can get to a point where other states are in the same position, where we’re not going to say to our students that you’ve got to go all the way to the South, that you can come right here and you can be able to have that experience.

One small caveat I have to add to this is that Sacramento State is also receiving a commemorative designation that happens actually before the state code will even be in place, from the California Legislative Black Caucus, this will be the first time they’ve ever done this. June 6, we have a floor list resolution that’s being done by the California Legislative Assembly. And they’ll be doing a commemorative designation of Sacramento State as the first Black-serving institution in the state of California. Of course, that’s outside of Charles Drew, which is a historically Black graduate institution. But still it’s a very meaningful recognition for us in advance of what will be a statewide code from Senator Bradford’s bill.

Inside Higher Ed: That speaks to the rich history of serving Black students at Sac State for sure. Timeline-wise, where are we at in the process of the honors college? What can we look forward to in the coming months?

Wood: We’re going! Students are coming in this fall. August 8 is our official launch. We’ve got folks coming out from the White House who will be part of it. So Stephen Benjamin, who is the senior adviser to President [Joe] Biden on public engagement, we have the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, Black Americans will be coming. We’ve got folks who are part of our local NBA team who will be here. It is going to be a star-studded event with folks who are coming here to just celebrate our students, welcome our new class, and to make sure that they know that they’re part of something that is historical.

So we would love to invite you and anyone else who would love to come. We want people to be able to see this in person and see that we’re doing something that is special and is going to treat and give our students an environment where they can experience dignity.

Listen to previous episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

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