BY MIKHAIL ZINSHTEYN, CalMatters
The way the Cal State system presents graduation rates obscures how the system is failing its Black students.
At the close of the first-ever California State University Juneteenth Symposium last month, the system’s top executive laid out an agenda for improving the Black student experience at the nation’s largest public university system.
The first item on Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester’s list? “We need to disaggregate the data,” she said.
That might sound dry, but there’s a good reason why it’s top of mind: Cal State’s struggle to graduate its Black students often goes unmentioned in the system’s public reporting about graduation rates.
Combined, the system’s 23 campuses graduate just half of Black students who enter as freshmen over a six-year period — well below the overall six-year average of 63%, according to the latest system data from 2021.
But you wouldn’t know it from looking at how Cal State reports the data.
In its marquee data tool showing the system’s efforts to close achievement gaps among ethnic and racial groups, Black, Latino and Native American students are lumped into a single category of “underrepresented minorities.” With Latino students comprising about 91% of all students in the “underrepresented minority” category — in keeping with the size of their population in the system and state — that makes the data almost entirely a reflection of the success of Latino students.
Consequently, the deeper inequities faced by Black students remain hidden.
On average, Cal State graduates 57% of its first-time students who are underrepresented minorities within six years, a gap of 12 percentage points compared to White, Asian and other students who don’t fall into that grouping. But the graduation gap between Black students and students outside the underrepresented-minority category is 20 percentage points — and has been that way for 15 years.
Last year, across the system, Cal State graduated 770 fewer first-time and transfer Black students after six and four years, respectively, than its targets for 2025.
In other words, Cal State’s default method of presenting minority data suggests the system is much closer to closing the achievement gap for Black students than it actually is.
The graduation gap between Black students and students outside the underrepresented-minority category is 20% — and has been that way for 15 years.
“We’ve been pushing the chancellor’s office for years about disaggregating and giving us the data,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a student advocacy organization. “We’ve always been critical of that.”
Yet at the November 2021 Board of Trustees meeting that discussed the gaps in graduation rates, Cal State senior officials never mentioned the deeper equity gaps Black students experience or disaggregated any data by specific racial groups. Instead, both the publicly available written material and oral discussion focused solely on the underrepresented minority student gap.
No one from the Cal State’s Office of the Chancellor made themselves available for an interview for this story.
Interim Chancellor Koester turned down a CalMatters request for an interview. So did Jeff Gold, interim associate vice president of student success for the system. In a written statement, Gold explained that the Cal State system adopted the underrepresented minority metric in 2009 and built it into the 2025 goals of its graduation initiative that launched in 2015.
“Despite the problematic nature of the term ‘URM’ and the limitations of the underlying methodology, the CSU decided not to abandon this metric and/or change the goalposts midstream,” he wrote. In other words, the system won’t change its approach to measuring equity gaps because of a decision it made seven years ago and won’t change until 2025 at the earliest. The Cal State system “is committed” to moving away from the underrepresented minority metric for future graduation initiatives, Gold said.
Gold then noted that individual campuses “regularly disaggregate student retention and graduation rate data by race, gender, ethnicity” and other descriptors, such as household income levels.
“I would say as a matter of legal compliance with federal law, you should not be over-aggregating data like that.”
THOMAS A. SAENZ, PRESIDENT AND GENERAL COUNSEL, MEXICAN AMERICAN LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATIONAL FUND
However, CalMatters research found nine of the 23 campuses had either no functioning graduation rate data tool, tools with outdated data or tools that didn’t reveal graduation rates by race or ethnicity. The remaining campuses do present their graduation rate data by race and ethnicity, but most share the information in cumbersome ways.
Take Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, for example. To compare the graduation rate gap between Black students and white students, an internet user would have to click on each group individually, record the information manually, and then spot the equity gaps.
The Cal State system’s own in-depth graduation rate portal also presents the data in a way that requires users to record each racial and ethnic group individually, such as by downloading the data as spreadsheets to enable mathematical comparisons. Some of the campus websites, such as Cal Poly’s, don’t even allow the user to download the data as spreadsheets, further limiting the public’s ability to easily spot equity gaps.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The graduation rate websites for San Diego State and San Jose State, for example, show each racial and ethnic group’s success side by side, allowing users to instantly notice the depth of the equity gaps across demographic groups.
Cal State’s approach of bundling various identity groups may also run afoul of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights legal group that has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I would say as a matter of legal compliance with federal law, you should not be over-aggregating data like that,” he said. The university system’s website dedicated to closing the achievement gap compares the aggregated groups to each other, not individual racial groups that would have clearly illustrated the much wider equity gaps Black students experience.
While separate data about Black student success is attainable, the numbers are tucked away in large datasets that lack the simplicity of the system’s other digital displays of student progress. To determine the equity gaps facing Black students, CalMatters analyzed systemwide and campus-specific graduation data by race. CalMatters also recreated the underrepresented and non-underrepresented categories to compare them to Black student graduation rates.
As part of its ambitious 2025 goal to increase graduation rates, Cal State says it wants to eliminate the graduation rate gap between certain students of color and their peers. In 2015, the system launched Graduation Initiative 2025, which also includes goals to bring CSU graduation rates up to 70% for first-time students and 85% for transfers in a six-year window.
Since the graduation initiative’s inception, the six-year graduation rate for Black students who entered as freshmen increased from 41.9% to 49.7% system-wide, part of an overall 15-year trend of more students finishing. But over those 15 years, the six-year graduation rate gap between Black and white students who entered as freshmen has actually widened slightly. It was 21.9% in 2006; in 2021, it was 22.2%.
Though the system is poised to reach its overall graduation targets, “we are not yet on track in eliminating the equity-gap part of the challenge,” said then-Chancellor Joseph Castro during last November’s Board of Trustees meeting.
Still, he added: “I believe that we can still do it.”
Extreme variation and incomplete reports
Drill down to individual campuses, and the disparity between Black student success and the larger underrepresented minority grouping is more extreme. At Sonoma State, the six-year graduation achievement gap for underrepresented and non-underrepresented first-time students has practically closed — there’s a difference of just 1.4 percentage points. But the gap between Black students and their non-underrepresented peers is 20 percentage points.
Only one Cal State campus, San Diego State, has effectively closed its six-year freshman graduation achievement gap, both between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students and between Black students and non-underrepresented students.