Hidden figures

Cal State’s Black students fall behind, with poor graduation data obscuring the crisis

Commencement in May at Chico State, where the achievement gap for Black students was statistically significant last year. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

By Mikhail Zinshteyn for CalMatters

CalMatters is an independent public journalism venture covering California state politics and government. For more info, visit calmatters.org.

At the close of the first-ever California State University Juneteenth Symposium this summer, the system’s top executive laid out an agenda for improving the Black student experience at the nation’s largest public university system.

The first item on Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester’s list? “We need to disaggregate the data,” she said.


That might sound dry, but there’s a good reason why it’s top of mind: Cal State’s struggle to graduate its Black students often goes unmentioned in the system’s public reporting about graduation rates.

Combined, the system’s 23 campuses graduate just half of Black students who enter as freshmen over a six-year period—well below the overall six-year average of 63 percent, according to the latest system data from 2021.

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at how Cal State reports the data.

In its marquee data tool showing the system’s efforts to close achievement gaps among ethnic and racial groups, Black, Latino and Native American students are lumped into a single category of “underrepresented minorities.” With Latino students comprising about 91 percent of all students in the “underrepresented minority” category—in keeping with the size of their population in the system and state—that makes the data almost entirely a reflection of the success of Latino students.

Consequently, the deeper inequities faced by Black students remain hidden.

On average, Cal State graduates 57 percent of its first-time students who are underrepresented minorities within six years, a gap of 12 percentage points compared to White, Asian and other students who don’t fall into that grouping. But the graduation gap between Black students and students outside the underrepresented-minority category is 20 percentage points—and has been that way for 15 years.

Last year, across the system, Cal State graduated 770 fewer first-time and transfer Black students after six and four years, respectively, than its targets for 2025.

In other words, Cal State’s default method of presenting minority data suggests the system is much closer to closing the achievement gap for Black students than it actually is.

“We’ve been pushing the chancellor’s office for years about disaggregating and giving us the data,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a student advocacy organization. “We’ve always been critical of that.”

Yet at the November 2021 Board of Trustees meeting that discussed the gaps in graduation rates, Cal State senior officials never mentioned the deeper equity gaps Black students experience or disaggregated any data by specific racial groups. Instead, both the publicly available written material and oral discussion focused solely on the underrepresented minority student gap.

No one from the Cal State’s Office of the Chancellor made themselves available for an interview for this story. Interim Chancellor Koester turned down a CalMatters request for an interview. So did Jeff Gold, interim associate vice president of student success for the system. In a written statement, Gold explained that the Cal State system adopted the underrepresented minority metric in 2009 and built it into the 2025 goals of its graduation initiative that launched in 2015.

“Despite the problematic nature of the term ‘URM’ and the limitations of the underlying methodology, the CSU decided not to abandon this metric and/or change the goalposts midstream,” he wrote. In other words, the system won’t change its approach to measuring equity gaps because of a decision it made seven years ago and won’t change until 2025 at the earliest. The Cal State system “is committed” to moving away from the underrepresented minority metric for future graduation initiatives, Gold said.

Gold then noted that individual campuses “regularly disaggregate student retention and graduation rate data by race, gender, ethnicity” and other descriptors, such as household income levels.

However, CalMatters research found nine of the 23 campuses had either no functioning graduation rate data tool, tools with outdated data or tools that didn’t reveal graduation rates by race or ethnicity. The remaining campuses do present their graduation rate data by race and ethnicity, but most share the information in cumbersome ways.

Take Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, for example. To compare the graduation rate gap between Black students and white students, an internet user would have to click on each group individually, record the information manually and then spot the equity gaps.

The Cal State system’s own in-depth graduation rate portal also presents the data in a way that requires users to record each racial and ethnic group individually, such as by downloading the data as spreadsheets to enable mathematical comparisons. Some of the campus websites, such as Cal Poly’s, don’t even allow the user to download the data as spreadsheets, further limiting the public’s ability to easily spot equity gaps.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The graduation rate websites for San Diego State and San Jose State, for example, show each racial and ethnic group’s success side by side, allowing users to instantly notice the depth of the equity gaps across demographic groups.

Extreme variation

Cal State’s approach of bundling various identity groups may run afoul of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights legal group that has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I would say as a matter of legal compliance with federal law, you should not be over-aggregating data like that,” he said. The university system’s website dedicated to closing the achievement gap compares the aggregated groups to each other, not individual racial groups that would have clearly illustrated the much wider equity gaps Black students experience.

While separate data about Black student success is attainable, the numbers are tucked away in large datasets that lack the simplicity of the system’s other digital displays of student progress. To determine the equity gaps facing Black students, CalMatters analyzed systemwide and campus-specific graduation data by race. CalMatters also recreated the underrepresented and non-underrepresented categories to compare them to Black student graduation rates.

As part of its ambitious 2025 goal to increase graduation rates, Cal State says it wants to eliminate the graduation rate gap between certain students of color and their peers. In 2015, the system launched Graduation Initiative 2025, which also includes goals to bring CSU graduation rates up to 70 percent for first-time students and 85 percent for transfers in a six-year window.

Since the graduation initiative’s inception, the six-year graduation rate for Black students who entered as freshmen increased from 41.9 percent to 49.7 percent systemwide, part of an overall 15-year trend of more students finishing. But over those 15 years, the six-year graduation rate gap between Black and white students who entered as freshmen has actually widened slightly. It was 21.9 percent in 2006; in 2021, it was 22.2 percent.

Though the system is poised to reach its overall graduation targets, “we are not yet on track in eliminating the equity-gap part of the challenge,” said then-Chancellor Joseph Castro during last November’s Board of Trustees meeting. Still, he added: “I believe that we can still do it.”

Drill down to individual campuses, and the disparity between Black student success and the larger underrepresented minority grouping is more extreme. At Sonoma State, the six-year graduation achievement gap for underrepresented and non-underrepresented first-time students has practically closed—there’s a difference of just 1.4 percentage points. But the gap between Black students and their non-underrepresented peers is 20 percentage points.

Only one Cal State campus, San Diego State, has effectively closed its six-year freshman graduation achievement gap, both between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students and between Black students and non-underrepresented students.

At least one Cal State legislative report painted an incomplete picture of its efforts to close equity gaps. Last year, the system wrote to lawmakers that Cal State Northridge narrowed its achievement gap by 4 percentage points between underrepresented and non-underrepresented minority groups between 2019 and 2020. That’s true, but only because the non-minority group graduation rate dropped by three points.

The graduation rate for Black students actually declined by a percentage point in that time—something the report does not mention. While the report mentioned equity gaps between underrepresented and non-underrepresented student groups, it never broke out the data by individual racial and ethnic groups.

Equity gaps are even more pronounced for community college transfer students across the system, who make up almost half of all Cal State undergraduate students.

After four years, the graduation gap between underrepresented minority transfer students and their non-underrepresented peers has been between 2 and 3 percentage points the past six years. But the graduation gap between Black transfer students and non-underrepresented students has ranged from 9 to 12 percentage points in the same period. That works out to about 1,200 fewer Black transfer students earning degrees during that time.

Deeper equity gaps exist among transfer students at individual campuses. At Cal State Bakersfield, the gap in graduation rates after four years between underrepresented and non-underrepresented transfer students is 2 percentage points. But the gap between Black students and their non-underrepresented peers is 18 percentage points.

In fact, 22 of the 23 Cal State campuses were within single digits of closing the achievement gap between underrepresented transfer students and their non-underrepresented peers. But the same was true for just seven Cal State campuses when comparing Black student graduation rates to their non-underrepresented peers.

Race isn’t only factor

There’s little excuse to have graduation rates that low, given how small the Black student population is at each of Cal State’s 23 campuses, experts said. In 2015, out of an average freshman class of nearly 2,800, only 118 were Black students, roughly 4 percent.

“You would think that they would have enough energy to devote to a small cohort,” said Lesa Johnson, a Black sociology professor at Chico State who’s studied campus race relations.

At Chico State, the Black student versus non-underrepresented minority student achievement gap is 26 percentage points for the most recent year. Among all Cal States, only Channel Islands, with a gap of 31 percentage points, has a wider gap—even as its gap between underrepresented minority and non-underrepresented minority students is 8 percentage points.

An 8 percent gap “doesn’t seem so severe,” said Siqueiros. But the “strategies that we’re going to do to close an 8 percent gap versus a 31 percent gap are obviously going to be super different.”

Some campuses have just a few dozen entering freshmen who are Black. As a consequence, a slight change in the number of Black students graduating can lead to big swings in the graduation rate. Cal State Channel Islands enrolled just 25 Black freshmen in 2015, graduating only eight Black students after six years, for a graduation rate of 32 percent. Had the campus graduated eight more Black students, its graduation rate for Black students would have been 64 percent—enough to completely close the equity gap with non-underrepresented students.

The president of the Cal State with the largest share of Black students doesn’t see deception in how the system is portraying the data.

“I think there is a very sincere and intentional effort to close these equity gaps,” said Thomas Parham, president of Cal State Dominguez Hills and one of three Black campus presidents at the Cal State system. “If I had a question about whether we were really committed to the work, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

Parham also cautioned race isn’t the only factor in understanding the data behind the achievement gaps. Whether a student is low-income and first in their family to attend college can also affect the likelihood that they graduate.

Dominguez Hills has a large share of students who fit some or all of those demographic profiles, as well as those who come from communities that endure systemic racism. Like others with similar student-body profiles, Dominguez Hills has to work harder to see students cross the finish line than campuses with more affluent students and who aren’t from underrepresented backgrounds, Parham said.

Still, for both transfer and first-time students, Cal State Dominguez Hills has a narrower equity gap for Black students and underrepresented minority students than the system average for the most recent year. Dominguez Hills also has a narrower equity gap than Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, whose student body is 1 percent Black, 19 percent URM and 16 percent low-income—data points that are far below the system average and well under the share of high school graduates in California who took college-ready courses.

On the other hand, Cal State Dominguez Hill’s equity efforts have regressed. Four years ago, there was virtually no six-year graduation rate gap between Black first-time students and non-underrepresented minority students. Since then, the grad rate for Black students fell about 5 percentage points while the rate for non-underrepresented minority students grew nearly 10 percentage points.

To James Minor, former assistant vice chancellor at the CSU’s systemwide office, any help for struggling students at the system directly improves the academic fates of Black students. He highlighted various efforts underway to improve graduation rates for all students, including re-enrolling students who stopped attending and lowering the share of students earning Ds and Fs. Cal State is also trying additional software, and contacting students in the spring who haven’t signed up for fall classes—a clear sign they may drop out. All those efforts benefit Black students, too, he said.

But the university system needs to target Black students specifically, experts and students told CalMatters.

While CSU leader Koester explicitly called out disaggregating data as a goal for improving the Black student experience in the Cal State system, that would appear to conflict with other goals she and the system share.

If Cal State doesn’t want to disaggregate the data regarding Black student achievement until 2025 because of the 10-year goal it set in 2015—as interim associate vice president Gold told CalMatters—then it probably won’t do so under Koester. When Koester took the position of interim chancellor in March, she told Calmatters she doesn’t want the job permanently, that she was “150 percent committed” to the interim position.

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