Diversity Lagging at Cal Poly

Times Staff Writers

Sheva Diagne, a high school senior with strong grades and SAT scores, is intrigued by the array of options for college. She has applied to a long list of top institutions, public and private, and anticipates struggling with her final choice.

But it was easy for her to rule out one of the first schools she visited, California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

While attending an outreach program two years ago, Diagne was immediately struck by the scarcity of minority students on campus. With a friend, she found herself counting the number of blacks.

“I don’t remember how many the number was, but we didn’t have very many,” said Diagne, who is black. “We were looking around and thinking, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ”


Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is widely regarded as the academic star of the California State University system and ranks as one of the best regional universities in the West. It regularly competes for strong students against top UC schools. And it often wins.

Yet by another measure, Cal Poly falls short when compared with other selective California schools: its enrollment of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

Only 12.9% of Cal Poly’s undergraduates belong to those traditionally underrepresented minority groups, according to the latest data collected from the vast majority of students. That is the lowest rate among the 30 California public universities with comprehensive undergraduate programs.

Even with a state ban on affirmative action, enrollment of underrepresented groups has risen at other Cal State and UC campuses in recent years. At Cal Poly, the numbers started tumbling from a high of 18.9% in the late 1990s and have never rebounded.

The campus “is monochromatic, with mostly white people,” said Dan Guerrant, a white senior majoring in aerospace engineering, voicing one of his few complaints about the school.

Cal Poly provides a case study in what can happen when a highly selective school, prohibited from considering applicants’ race and ethnicity, makes few allowances for weighing other personal qualities in the admissions process.

Cal Poly admits students largely by the numbers -- grade point averages and test scores. Admissions decisions are so automated that applicants don’t even submit an essay, and no one in the admissions office actually reads a typical application.

The contrast with UC schools is striking. They consider such factors as students’ ability to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and other hardships -- a process that can be subjective and lately has proved controversial. Two regents have questioned whether the system amounts to backdoor affirmative action.


Cal Poly faces a different problem, educators say.

A numbers-driven system at a selective university is “an invitation for really low minority enrollments,” said Bob Laird, one of the architects of UC Berkeley’s admissions policies in the 1990s.

School officials say they don’t have the money to adopt a more holistic approach, which is labor-intensive.

In January, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Cal Poly for discrimination, contending that the campus’ heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.


Blacks also score lower on average. The SAT counts for up to 35% of the points an applicant can receive.

Victor Viramontes, a defense fund lawyer handling the case, said the university compounds the problem by trumpeting the high average scores its students earn -- a factor that could turn off potential Latino and black applicants.

SATs for this year’s enrolled freshmen averaged 1196, higher than the scores for UC Santa Barbara or UC Davis. In the most recent ranking by U.S. News & World Report, Cal Poly placed fifth in the West among universities that concentrate on bachelor’s and master’s programs. The next-closest Cal State school was Cal State Chico, in 29th place.

Cal Poly has the look and atmosphere of a private school, despite an enrollment of 18,000. The hilly campus’ buildings are low-rise, classes normally are taught by regular faculty rather than graduate students. Relatively few of the students are commuters or working adults, and, as at some elite private schools, everyone must complete a senior project to graduate.


Students like Guerrant, an aerospace engineering student, are a point of pride at Cal Poly. An academic standout in high school with a nearly perfect SAT score of 1590, Guerrant chose Cal Poly after turning down such prestigious campuses as UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego.

Guerrant figures the school’s good reputation in technical fields will help launch his professional career. He also likes the campus’ small classes and practical approach to education.

“Cal Poly’s motto is ‘learn by doing,’ and I like to get my hands on things,” he said.

Still, Guerrant laments that Cal Poly’s social environment can be bland. “I miss the racial diversity,” he said. “I like being around people of different cultures.”


The largely white, middle-class campus and surrounding Central Coast community can come across as uninviting to minorities, especially those from more integrated or ethnic neighborhoods.

It’s not just that Cal Poly turns away a high percentage of underrepresented minorities. According to a Times analysis of the school’s admissions figures, few apply in the first place, and few of those who are accepted actually enroll.

“They come here, they see and they leave,” said Juan Ochoa, a fifth-year civil engineering student at Cal Poly whose parents are Mexican immigrants.

Even among Asians, who are accepted at almost the same rate as whites, only 20% of those admitted chose to enroll in the last two years. Whites enrolled at a 40% rate.


But the school has a particularly hard time attracting black students. As of the fall quarter, there were only 166 black undergraduates, or 1.1% of the students who indicated their racial or ethnic background. At least 39 of the black students are on the school’s sports teams.

“I would not encourage any student of color to come to Cal Poly,” said Charise Cheney, an assistant professor of ethnic studies who is black. “While I’m 100% in support of diversifying the campus, I definitely understand the flip side from the perspective of a person of color, [including] the burden that those students have to bear. In some instances, that burden might be too great.”

Cheney said she makes the 200-mile trip south to Los Angeles just to have her hair done, because of the lack of a local salon familiar with the needs of black women.

Cheney, who has been on campus since 1999, said black women undergraduates sometimes confide in her that they have no African American dating prospects. In addition, Cheney said that when racially tinged disputes occasionally emerge on campus, the black and other minority communities sometimes are too small to provide a strong voice for their concerns.


Tiffani Hamilton, a fifth-year student majoring in animal science, said the lack of a significant African American community on or off campus can make Cal Poly a tough sell for her black peers.

“You have to be frank,” she said. “You want black students to come, so there will be more, and because this is a good education. But the flip side is that you definitely want them to know what they’re getting into. Depending on the individual, and the experiences they’ve had, this could be very challenging.”

Cal Poly officials tout their efforts to lure minority students through an outreach initiative aimed at 45 high schools, mostly in low-income areas. But even those efforts appear to benefit the small number of whites at those schools far more than minorities.

Diagne is a student at one of those high schools, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. But she wasn’t a willing recruit.


“It just didn’t seem worthwhile to me,” Diagne said.

Part of Cal Poly’s lack of appeal to minority students relates to its academic specialties and its location.

Many of the dominant disciplines on campus -- engineering, agriculture, architecture, math and science -- historically have attracted comparatively low numbers of minority students around the country.

Cal Poly makes an effort to ease the path of applicants from disadvantaged areas -- providing some bonus points for students in the high school outreach program, for instance. The school also favors applicants who are the first in their families to attend college.


But its practices contrast with that of UC, which takes a much more individualized look at applicants.

Warren J. Baker, a Notre Dame-educated engineer who is in his 25th year as president of the campus, says he is watching UC’s experience with its 3-year-old program, known as “comprehensive review.” He said a similar approach would help Cal Poly -- if his campus could afford to run it.

In sizing up applicants, “There are things you just don’t find out with what we have now,” Baker said. “How well [students] have done has to be put in context. What opportunities have they had?”

Still, for the foreseeable future, Cal Poly administrators say they are limited in how much they can tinker with their admissions process. They say that they can’t get funding from the Cal State system to hire extra staff for a more elaborate review of applications.


Other Cal State campuses are numbers-driven as well, but less selective, so fewer barriers exist for minorities.

The Cal State system “doesn’t really have an effective way to deal with the admissions particularities and peculiarity of one campus,” said Harry Hellenbrand, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts and chairman of a diversity council on campus.




Minorities at Cal Poly

Among the state’s major universities, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has the lowest rate of black and Latino enrollment, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission. Even highly competitive schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA enroll a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos.

2002 enrollment by race/ethnicity

*--* Black Latino White Asian/ Pac. Is. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 1% 9% 61% 11% Cal Poly Pomona 3 24 24 34 Cal State Los Angeles 8 49 11 19 San Diego State 4 20 45 15 UC Berkeley 4 10 30 42 UC Davis 3 10 42 36 UCLA 4 15 33 38 UC Riverside 6 23 23 41 UC Santa Barbara 3 11 64 15



School records show relatively few blacks and Latinos apply to Cal Poly. A point-driven admissions screening that relies heavily on test scores and grades turns down a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos than whites and Asians. Whites are more than twice as likely to enroll.

Fall admissions 2002-03

*--* Black Latino White Asian Applications 871 5,368 21,753 8,195 Percent accepted 21% 27% 43% 37% Percent of accepted students who enrolled 36% 29% 40% 20% Total enrolled 65 415 3,711 620 Percent of all applicants enrolled 7% 8% 17% 8%



Cal Poly’s minority representation has gained little from a program offering extra admissions points to graduates of 45 high schools in predominantly low-income and minority neighborhoods. Despite their relatively high black and Latino enrollments, these schools still place more whites at Cal Poly.

Partner schools as of 2002-03



Percentage in high school graduating class: 18%

Percentage enrolled at Cal Poly: 19%


Percentage in high school graduating class: 46%


Percentage enrolled at Cal Poly: 8%


Percentage in high school graduating class: 21%

Percentage enrolled at Cal Poly: 47%



Percentage in high school graduating class: 11%

Percentage enrolled at Cal Poly: 3%



Percentage in high school graduating class: 5%

Percentage enrolled at Cal Poly: 23%


Sources: California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo and California Postsecondary Education Commission.


Data analysis by Times staff writer Doug Smith