Robert Terry is unsure of his next step.
Since graduating from Sacramento’s Sheldon High School in May, the 18-year-old has been working and weighing the options for continuing his education.
Terry thought about attending a trade school to learn a hands-on skill, and he’s still considering getting a phlebotomy technician certificate, which would get him into the workforce and out on his own sooner. But for now, he’s looking forward to starting at Sacramento City College next month with plans to enter the medical field, perhaps as a nurse.
“I wanted to sit there and think whether this was what I wanted to do,” he said.
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Across California this month, hundreds of thousands of students are sending in college applications and hoping for letters of acceptance from their dream schools. But fewer of them are African American, like Terry, even as more black students have become eligible to attend the state’s public universities.
Over the past decade, a surge of African American enrollment at California colleges, driven particularly by rapid expansion of the for-profit sector, just as quickly reversed course.
The Public Policy Institute of California recently found that between 2011 and 2014, the most recent year data are available, the number of black college students in the state decreased by 13 percent, below 2008 figures. The decline could be more severe. In the two years since, major for-profit chains like Heald College and ITT Tech, where African Americans were vastly overrepresented, have closed.
13 percent Drop in African American college enrollment between 2011 and 2014
Experts point to an array of possible explanations: The number of black high school graduates declined by 6 percent during the same time period. As the economy recovered from the recession, students may have entered the workforce instead. More black students could be attending college in other states.
But in a state with historically low college attainment among African Americans, any drop concerns advocates. It’s especially pressing as California tries to close an expected shortage of 1 million college degrees necessary to fuel its economy by 2025.
Less than 23 percent of black adults have a bachelor’s degree, according to census estimates – about half the rate of white Californians, and a third have some college but no degree.
“In the black community, there’s this story that the road to freedom comes through the schoolhouse,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West. “Looking at the state of black students in California right now is a call to action.”
The number of white college students in California has declined at a similar rate since 2011.
But Jake Jackson of PPIC said the drop in African Americans is noteworthy because it parallels the collapse of the for-profit sector. A fifth of all black college students in the state are at for-profit schools, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 whites, Latinos and Asians.
A fifth of all black college students in California are at for-profit schools, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 whites, Latinos and Asians.
Runaway growth of for-profits last decade was halted after 2011, as the schools came under increasing scrutiny from critics who said they charged exorbitant prices for degrees of questionable value.
In 2012, California cut financial aid for many for-profit colleges, and the following year, Attorney General Kamala Harris brought a lawsuit against the chain Corinthian Colleges for aggressively targeting low-income, disadvantaged students with false claims about its job-placement rate. Further regulatory pressure at the federal level squeezed some schools of their main source of revenue until they finally shut down.
“Students who would have enrolled at a school like those have had to figure out something else to do,” Jackson said. “They were serving students who went unserved, and that has consequences when they close.”
Black students remain underrepresented at California’s public universities, hovering above 4 percent of resident undergraduates at both the University of California and California State University. While that number has slowly risen at UC over the past decade, it has been falling at CSU.
Both systems maintain they are committed to improving diversity, with programs aimed at boosting African American enrollment. CSU’s Super Sunday initiative, in which university officials visit black churches, was launched in 2005, while UC recently announced that it would double visits to underserved high schools.
For many black Californians, however, it still feels as though black students are being ignored.
The message by the 2000s (was) that we don’t want you here.
Carl Pinkston, Black Parallel School Board
Carl Pinkston, who leads the Sacramento advocacy organization the Black Parallel School Board, points to lingering effects of Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that banned the consideration of race in college admissions. He said more students are opting for private liberal arts schools, where they are offered generous financial aid packages, or historically black colleges and universities in the South and on the East Coast.
“The message by the 2000s (was) that we don’t want you here,” he said. “That got translated to the African American community.”
A survey conducted by UC last year found that two-thirds of African Americans it admitted considered diversity a priority in choosing their college. Some turned down their offer because they didn’t want to feel like the “only black person” on campus.
It’s an important factor for Nicole Terry, 17, a senior at Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove and Robert Terry’s cousin. She applied to UC Davis and San Diego State, but her top choice is the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. After touring it this summer, she thought she would be comfortable there surrounded by other African American students.
“I’ve been taking a lot of advanced courses, and I don’t have a lot of black people in my classes, unfortunately,” she said. “In some moments, it feels empowering. Other times, it’s kind of lonely.”
Only a third of black high school students complete the eligibility requirements for the University of California and California State University.
Advocates for increasing minority college enrollment in California add that the solution must include K-12 schools. Only a third of black high school students complete the eligibility requirements for UC and CSU, while most of those who continue on to community college are placed in remediation, significantly decreasing their chances of ultimately transferring to a four-year school.
“There’s obviously a high demand and high interest in going to college, but these students are not being supported,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity.
State programs like the College Readiness Block Grant, an additional budget allocation this year to help school districts enroll more disadvantaged students in college, are a start. Community organizations like Sacramento’s Yes2Kollege, a nonprofit focused on college preparation for African American students interested in health careers, also fill in the gap.
Justine Jackson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Sacramento High School, is one of its participants. She said she is “so horse crazy, it’s ridiculous” and has always wanted to help animals, but she sometimes doubted she was good enough at science to become a veterinarian.
A Yes2Kollege visit to an African American veterinarian’s office reinforced to Jackson that her dream is possible. As she works toward attending UC Davis, she’s inspired by his example and his encouragement that everyone learns in different ways. A square, Jackson said, should not be pushed into a triangle.
“I know I’m not a triangle,” she said. “I’m probably a hexagon.”
African American enrollment in California colleges
A surge of black enrollment at state colleges and universities reversed course in 2011, falling by 13 percent over the following three years. The shift parallels the collapse of the for-profit sector, though experts say there are other factors contributing to the drop in black college students.
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System