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How Cal Poly plans to increase diversity on campus

Visitors tour the Cal Poly campus in May. In 2014, 58 percent of first-time freshman were white.
Visitors tour the Cal Poly campus in May. In 2014, 58 percent of first-time freshman were white. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Faced with a predominantly white and male student body, Cal Poly is striving to make the campus a more diverse place that better reflects the demographics of California and the state university system as a whole.

As a way to encourage diversity, the university is offering some scholarship incentives and recruiting students in high schools with many low-income students, which typically enroll more minorities than affluent schools.

And over the past four years, the profile of the freshman class has been changing, although only modestly.

The percentage of white first-time freshmen on campus dropped from 63.8 percent in 2010 to 58.3 percent in the 2014-15 freshman class, as the number of Asian-American and Latino students increased slightly.

However, the number of incoming freshmen who are African-American has remained low, and the percentage of multi-racial students has stagnated as well.

Cal Poly's historically male-dominated student body may be headed for change.

The campus has enrolled a slightly higher percentage of women over the past few years — with 49 percent of first-time freshman women enrolled in 2014 versus 47.5 percent 2010.

While the university doesn’t yet have its official statistics for the class entering this fall, a preliminary picture of those who have submitted their intent to enroll shows a nearly even percentage of incoming women and men — 50.1 percent male and 49.9 percent female.

GPA continues to climb

As the campus aims for more diversity, applications have spiked and incoming students are arriving with increasingly higher grade-point averages.

The average GPA for freshmen at Cal Poly rose from 3.84 in 2010 to 3.88 in 2014, and the average SAT score climbed from 1,215 in 2010 to 1,262 in 2014.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said the university can’t recruit students based on race because California's Proposition 209 prevents discrimination based on race, sex or ethnicity. The university has, however, tried to provide opportunities for students at low-income schools, which tend to have a higher percentage of minorities.

“We know what to do,” Armstrong said. “We know that students with family incomes less than $80,000 haven’t accepted at the same rate as higher-income students. Private universities and the UC campus provide better financial aid. We need to provide alternative sources of funding aid for those students — which means engaging in public partnerships and bringing in donations.”

Armstrong attributes the rising grade-point average and test scores, a measure of the competition to get into Cal Poly, to the university’s academic programs that transfer well into the job market.

“We have a core of great faculty, staff and students,” Armstrong said. “The learn-by-doing approach results in alumni who are extremely successful.”

Campus demographics

A closer look at race shows that, in five of Cal Poly’s six colleges, more than 50 percent of incoming freshmen have been white.

In 2014, white students made up 64.5 percent of freshmen enrolled in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, down from 68.5 percent in 2010.

In the College of Engineering, 57 percent of freshmen were white in 2014 compared with 59 percent in 2010.

The exception is the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, where 48.9 percent of freshmen students were white in 2014; 18.4 percent Latino; 17.2 percent Asian-American; 6.4 percent of mixed race; 1.3 percent African-American; and 3.3 percent other. Additional ethnicities made up the rest.

Overall, the campus has seen a slight rise in freshman Latino students — growing from 12.3 percent in 2010 to 14.3 percent in 2014 — and an increase in Asian-American students, from 9.9 percent to 12.9 percent during that same period.

However, the number of black students has stayed under 1 percent — 0.5 percent in 2010 and 0.7 percent in 2014.

Minority student enrollment is far lower at Cal Poly compared to the California State University system as a whole — which has about 35 percent Latinos, 27 percent whites, 17 percent Asian-Americans, 5 percent multi-race, and 4 percent black.

Women also make up a smaller percentage of students at Cal Poly than in the CSU system, where 56 percent are women.

Bigger-picture problems

Cal Poly English professor Johanna Rubba said various factors contribute to less diversity than other CSU campuses — including that San Luis Obispo is “not a particularly diverse town, in spite of being surrounded by diverse communities.”

“Some number of students from marginalized groups are not happy at Cal Poly, because (except for women) they do not find a critical mass of students like themselves here,” Rubba said. “Also, we have had several nasty hate incidents; such students may not feel safe here, let alone accepted.”

Rubba said that increased diversity in hiring of minority faculty, as well as staff and administration, would help attract a more diverse student body because students will better identify with mentors in positions of authority.

“For a student to be able to think ‘I could be her’ is tremendously beneficial,” Rubba said.

Rubba also hopes for improvements in how English learners are taught in K-12 education, saying glaring problems with underperformance exist.

“There is a terrible problem with the way in which lower-class children, including children of color and children who don’t yet speak English or who speak a nonstandard dialect of English, are educated,” Rubba said. “... Language and proficiency in reading and writing are the gateway to all school subjects.”

Efforts to diversify

Cal Poly has been able to attract some students of color to campus by offering scholarship programs.

One such example, Cal Poly Scholars, offers a $3,000 annual housing grant, an iPad and programmatic support to qualifying students in need of financial aid.

The program is small, serving 154 students — 133 in the College of Engineering and 21 in the Orfalea College of Business.

The program works with partner high schools throughout California that typically have a significant number of first-generation, underrepresented or low-income students.

The idea is to recruit those students to Cal Poly and to help them through graduation by assisting them to live on campus and have full access to support programs.

“This ($3,000 grant) gives students who otherwise might not have the chance to live on campus and have the full Cal Poly experience,” said Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier.

Armstrong also said several summer programs at Cal Poly familiarize underrepresented students with the university, encouraging them to apply and attend.

Those include Cal Poly’s Engineering Possibilities in College program, which involves hands-on, project-based learning for students in grades 7 to 12, with the goal of making a future in engineering attractive to female, low-income and students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Of Cal Poly’s 1,246 freshmen in the College of Engineering in 2014, 25 percent were women.

To further attract and retain students of color and women in science, technology, engineering and math, Armstrong also acknowledged the need to hire more minority and female faculty.

“We need to have the most diverse pool possible when we hire faculty and staff,” Armstrong said. “Students want to see faculty like themselves.”

Culture of exclusion

Dr. Gloria Velasquez, a Cal Poly modern languages and literature professor, has worked at the university for 29 years and was previously active in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

Velasquez said the university needs to work on dismantling a culture of “white privilege.”

“I have seen a lot of faculty of color come and go because the culture of white privilege is very present,” Velasquez said. “Some people don’t feel welcome here. They feel like they have to prove themselves by working twice as hard because they’ve been questioned about their scholarly work.”

She said that the small number of African-American instructors at Cal Poly — nine tenured or tenure-track faculty in 2014 — and the very small black student population particular concern her.

However, Velasquez said she believes Armstrong is committed to making the university a welcoming environment that encourages hiring of underrepresented groups.

“I feel like President Armstrong is listening to us when we voice concerns,” Velasquez said. “I’ve talked directly to him, and any issue I’ve raised he has sincerely cared (about) and attempted to resolve.”

Selene Roman, a graduate student in education and a graduate assistant at the university’s MultiCultural Center, said she feels the campus has resources that support students of color. But more can be done to create a more culturally welcoming and diverse campus.

“I think the faculty, staff and administration can do a lot to educate themselves to become more culturally competent,” said Roman, who attended Cal Poly as an undergrad. “There cannot be a change among the students until the people that run the university are more aware and sensitive to the challenges students from different backgrounds face.”

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