For a decade, California State University leaders have set aside several Sundays each February to visit churches in the African American community and preach the benefits of preparing young people for college.
During that time, undergraduate enrollment of African Americans at Cal State's 23 campuses has mostly been on the decline, from 5.8% of the total student population in 2004 to 4.6% in 2013.
Factors in that slide include a downturn in the size of the African American population, poor high school preparation and lingering effects of the recession that have reduced access to many public colleges while forcing more students to work full time rather than enroll in school.
Cal State is not the only system with a low number of black students. The University of California and the state's community colleges have seen flat or decreasing African American enrollment. Concerns about equal access to higher education for African Americans nationally spurred a White House initiative, which last year awarded more than $28 million in grants to boost college and career readiness.
The downward trend is particularly vexing for Cal State, the nation's largest university system, which launched the first-of-its-kind Super Sunday initiative 10 years ago specifically to reach young students and their families through one of the community's most important institutions: the church.
Cal State estimates that more than 600,000 churchgoers throughout the state have received information about eligibility, financial aid and the application process. Last Sunday, hundreds of people at South Los Angeles' Crenshaw Christian Center heard Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White speak before services.
In an interview, White acknowledged the conundrum and said the issue was discussed recently during a meeting with community and church leaders.
"We are reaching more people in our efforts, but our enrollment numbers are fewer," White said. "What's getting in the way? We want to know whether the pipeline is leaking. We don't have an answer."
White and other experts, however, point to a number of considerations, including a smaller pool of potential applicants: Statewide, the African American population fell from 6.7% of the total in 2000 to 6% in 2013, according to census figures.
In Los Angeles County, African Americans make up 8.4% of the population, compared with 9.8% in 2000.
Black students are far more likely to live in poor communities and attend public schools lacking in college counseling and academic resources such as Advanced Placement and honors courses needed to qualify for college. And they are less likely to live with parents or caregivers who have attended college and can advise them, said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA.
"There's a vacuum in the kinds of knowledge available to African American students at a time when it's much more complicated when it comes to applying for college; you really have to start as early as middle school now," said Howard, who leads UCLA's Black Male Institute, which conducts research on the best education practices and policies for young black men.
Howard also said that passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race in admissions to public colleges and universities, has hindered enrollment of African American and other students of color.
Meanwhile, the recession that began in 2008 depressed enrollment numbers across the board as budget-strapped Cal State campuses eliminated hundreds of classes and turned away thousands of qualified students.
During that time, tuition and overall costs of education increased, disproportionately affecting low-income students, including many African Americans.
Gov. Jerry Brown's multiyear plan to increase state funding for Cal State and UC — including $119.5 million each for the 2015-16 school year — has improved access, but not by nearly enough, officials said.
"There hasn't been the funding we need to accommodate all those students who want to enroll," said Nathan Evans, Cal State's director of enrollment management services. "We expect systemwide enrollment will get close to the 2008 high-water mark, but we did see drops across the board and it has been on a very slow incremental growth path upward."
Officials noted that enrollment numbers for American Indians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders and whites have also declined. Meanwhile, reflecting dramatic population changes, enrollment of Latinos increased to 35% in 2013 from 22% in 2004.
Although black enrollment has declined, students who list two or more races grew from 2.9% in 2010 to 4.5% in 2013. These multiracial students who don't list themselves as one race or another may skew the numbers for any particular group.
Many black students may have turned to other avenues. With an improved economy, for example, more black youths may forgo college to seek jobs, White suggested.
And students may be turning to traditionally black colleges out of state or to for-profit institutions that recruit heavily in minority communities with the promise of a quicker path to a four-year degree. Additionally, it is far more likely for African American students to start at community colleges, even if they are academically qualified for a four-year university.
That poses roadblocks: Research has found that many students of all races and ethnicities who enroll in two-year schools never attain an associate's degree or transfer, noted Cal State Dominguez Hills President Willie J. Hagan.
The campus is one of Cal State's most diverse, but even there African American enrollment has decreased to below 18% from nearly 30% in 2009. Hagan's Carson campus and others in the system are working more with local public schools to help better prepare students, as well as with community colleges to streamline the transfer process.
"We have to reach students and help them understand that college is an option, that you can get there," Hagan said. "There are lots of things being done, but it doesn't negate the fact that the declines are still there and that we have to be more intentional and systematic and have a long-term plan."