More black students in California are earning bachelor's degrees than they were a decade ago, but enrollment in the state's public universities is stagnant and many are turning to costly for-profit schools, according to a new report.
The road to graduation for black students is still pitted with obstacles, despite efforts to close achievement gaps that have persisted over the years, according to the report released by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California advocacy group.
Among the findings:
• Blacks have the lowest completion rates for freshman and transfer students at all three higher education segments: community colleges, California State University and the University of California.
• Black students are more likely than any other group to attend college without earning a degree.
• In 2012, more black students were enrolled at private, for-profit colleges than at Cal State and UC combined.
• The achievement gap between blacks and whites earning a bachelor's degree or higher has narrowed by only a percentage point over the last decade. In 2011, about 24% of black adults had obtained a bachelor's compared with 41% of whites.
A report released by the group last month found similar hurdles in higher education for Latinos.
Black students, however, appear to have been disproportionately affected by policy decisions such as the state ban on affirmative action in education and budget cuts in recent years that resulted in significant declines in enrollment at community colleges and Cal State campuses, the report said.
Reluctance on the part of policymakers and educators to tackle racial disparities head-on is one factor in the persistent gaps, said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity.
"I've come to be more convinced of an inability to really address these issues more openly in a way that forces state policymakers to come up with ideas and colleges to find solutions," Siqueiros said. "Especially after the ban on affirmative action, we don't feel comfortable talking about race, and nothing really happens."
Educators said they too were disheartened by the lack of progress and argued for more state funding of support services.
"While we have a real challenge on our hands in making sure black and other students achieve success, the reality is that these students need more services in order to be successful," said Jamillah Moore, chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District and former president of Los Angeles City College. "We need to follow up and identify where the best practices are and what is working."
The report contained some good news: The proportion of black students earning a bachelor's degree increased to 24% from 18% over the last decade, and over the last two decades the number of blacks who graduate from California high schools rose by 48%. But many of those graduates fail to complete the course requirements needed for admission to Cal State and UC.
Black students also have the lowest admission rates to UC — 58% — of any ethnic group, and the rates have declined significantly since 1994, when 75% of black applicants were admitted, according to the report.
Admission rates vary widely by campus: UC Merced, for example, admitted about 76% of black applicants; and
The report also noted that black adults ages 25 to 34 are less educated than those ages 35 to 64. (The report used census data, state and federal education information and statistics from California's three systems of higher education.)
"It means that we have failed an entire generation of African American students, and we need to ask ourselves what caused this discrepancy and ensure that we are not making the same mistakes with the next generation," said state Sen.
She said caucus members would hold hearings in their districts to discuss the problem in an attempt to find solutions.
Many black students are plagued by low incomes and by attending struggling high schools where they receive little academic preparation and counseling for college, said William Franklin, vice president for student success at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
That lack of direction is often extended when they enter public colleges, derailing many who see a quicker path to graduation at for-profit schools.
"At most four-year schools they get a general education packet, but they have no idea of how a philosophy class, for example, relates to getting a job, and there's no one helping them make the connection to the real world," Franklin said. "There's not a clear pathway from the time they enter to getting a degree."
Dominguez Hills is seeing success in retention and graduation rates with an intensive program that builds competency in math and English with mentoring and supplemental instruction provided by peers.
Alyssia McPherson said she entered Dominguez Hills from her Los Angeles high school academically and socially unprepared for college and struggled with remedial math and English.
"I moved on campus, away from my family, and it was a very different atmosphere to be on your own and test how responsible and disciplined you are," said McPherson, 20, a sophomore majoring in communications.
She passed her remedial courses and also received special counseling and other support services to get on track for a degree.
"Now, I'm more aware of where I'm going and how to figure out a plan and strategy," she said. "I always had one, but it wasn't as definite as it is now."