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Black students are succeeding in college at higher rates, but far behind white peers, report says

UC Berkeley Black students gather in circle on campus
UC Berkeley students circle up for a prayer during Black Wednesday on Sproul Plaza in February 2020.
(Peter DaSilva / For The Times)

It took 10 years for Jamaal Muwwakkil, who grew up in Compton and was the first in his family to go to college, to navigate his way through the California community college system and ultimately transfer to UCLA.

“I attended all the community colleges and worked all the jobs,” he said during a webinar Tuesday, recounting the classes he took at Cerritos, East L.A., Santa Monica, Coastline and L.A. City colleges, all while working various full-time jobs, including at Foot Locker, Disneyland and AT&T.

“It’s unfortunate that my scenario is very common for first-generation Black college students,” Muwwakkil said.

Even after earning admission into UCLA, Muwwakkil struggled to feel welcomed, unfamiliar with the setting of a major research university. Today he is a doctoral student in linguistics and a University of California student regent.

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But his success is far from the norm for Black students in California.

A report released Tuesday by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit group that advocates for broader college access, found that although Black students are succeeding in higher education at higher rates than before, there is a long way to go before they achieve parity with their white peers or with goals set by state policymakers and education leaders.

The differences begin literally in infancy, when Black babies have higher mortality rates than white babies. Across California, Black children disproportionately experience food and housing insecurity, involvement with the foster and criminal justice systems, and school discipline.

“By the time California’s students arrive at the threshold of college, their inequitable experiences translate into significant disparities in the rates of college readiness and attendance by race/ethnicity,” the report says.

Seventy-seven percent of Black students who began high school in 2016 graduated in 2020, compared with 88% of white students who began at the same time, according to California Department of Education data cited in the report. Out of that entire class of almost 28,000 Black students, fewer than 1 in 3 met the “A-G” course eligibility requirements for admission to either the California State University or University of California, compared with almost half of the class of white students.

The Black students who do go to college are underrepresented at the Cal State and UC systems and overrepresented at for-profit private colleges, where they are less likely to complete degrees and more likely to borrow money to finance their education and to default on their loans.

At the community colleges, attended by the majority of college-going Black Californians, only 38% earn a degree or complete transfer requirements within six years, compared with 55% of white students. Recent reforms to increase the number of students who complete transfer-level English and math in their first year of college have had dramatic and promising effects for Black students in particular, which in turn has positive implications for their long-term completion rates.

At the Cal State system, the four-year graduation rate for Black students has doubled from 10% to 20% in the last decade — but the gap between white and Black students has grown to 25 percentage points.

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At UC, which has the best college completion rates among the public higher education systems, a little more than half of Black students graduate in four years, compared with three-quarters of white students, according to UC data for the class of 2019.

“California’s universities and colleges across the board are not supporting Black students to degree completion at the same rate as their white peers,” said Vikash Reddy, senior director of policy research at the Campaign for College Opportunity.

The number of Black students at UC campuses plummeted after Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in public education in 1996. The university system has spent half a billion dollars in the last two decades on efforts to diversify its student body with race-blind programs. The efforts have begun to pay off, with notable gains at UCLA and, more recently, UC Berkeley.

And some California campuses have won national recognition for their Black student success. UC Riverside, for instance, has been touted by the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit, for having one of the smallest racial achievement gaps in the nation. The six-year graduation rate in 2020 was 78.1% for Black students, 78.4% for white students, 73.7% for Latinos and 81.8% for Asian Americans.

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To reduce equity gaps, the report said, lawmakers and college leaders should limit federal financial aid to for-profit universities, make the “A-G” courses the default curriculum for all high school students, strengthen transfer pathways to the UC and Cal State systems, and double down on Cal State’s Graduation Initiative, which funneled resources to increasing graduation rates for freshmen and transfer students and to reducing gaps in those rates between traditionally underrepresented students and their peers.

Cassandra Jennings, president of the Greater Sacramento Urban League, said at Tuesday’s webinar that there’s another concrete action colleges and universities can take immediately: “Dedicate a person and a place on your campus today where Black students can go to connect, to get a support system, to cultivate a culture of inclusion and success. And if you already have it … then you need to step up your game because that’s not enough.”

Michael Wiafe, a San Diego State graduate who served as Cal State Student Assn. president in 2019-20, said having an on-campus resource where he could see familiar faces or meet students and faculty with similar backgrounds and interests was invaluable. During his sophomore year, San Diego State established a Black Resource Center, which Wiafe said made a “big difference” in his experience.

Still, as a political science student, Wiafe had no Black faculty members who could walk him through what he was learning in class and how that squared with his identity as a Black man in America and as an immigrant from Ethiopia.

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By chance, Wiafe found friends and mentors — Black hallmates his freshman year; Bonnie Reddick, a professor of Africana studies who helped him contextualize his experience; and J. Luke Wood, a renowned Black professor of education who stopped Wiafe in a hallway one day and invited him to chat.

“I was lucky,” Wiafe said. “We have to institutionalize these things more. We have to recognize that this is what makes a meaningful difference for students and this is what’s going to push them through to the end.”

Wiafe is now a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. He teaches two sections of a class on wealth and poverty — but is the only Black student in either class.

“It’s almost like we” — successful Black students — “are the exception, not the rule,” he said.

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Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.


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