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'I'm really hopeful for the future' | Sacramento State works to advance Black student success

The California State University system is seeing a decline in Black student enrollment and retention.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Grace Ballou is passionate about Black student success. It's one of the reasons she joined the Dedicated to Educating, Graduating, and Retaining Educational Equity Students (DEGREES) Project at California State University, Sacramento.

"Wherever you are, if you're a student of color, you definitely have to represent," Ballou said. "You have to have good grades in order to succeed and leave your mark by doing good things, on and off campus."

The DEGREES Project provides services to students to make sure they graduate on-time. Some of the services and resources include peer mentoring, faculty advising, networking opportunities and workshops for students to develop and enhance academic, career, social and personal skills.

"I really wanted to be part of an organization and help other people, like me, succeed," Ballou said. "At DEGREES, we are making sure that we take care of every student, but we focus more on minority students, like Black people, because it's not easy being a Black person."

Sacramento State is diverse with 31, 000 students. Hispanic students account for the majority, making up 36% of the student population. White students account for 23% and Asian American students represent 20%. Black students are one of the most underrepresented groups on campus, standing at 6%.

Grace, who's an undergraduate student, says the lack of Black student representation is concerning.

"It makes me sad," Ballou said. "I feel like there should be bigger representation. I know Black people are smart. Black people have potential. I just want our college to encourage more Black people to succeed in life."

According to a California State University (CSU) report, "Advancing Black Student Success and Elevating Black Excellence in the CSU:  A Call to Action," the CSU system is seeing a decline in Black student enrollment and retention. 

In looking at the class of 2022 who enrolled in Fall 2016 as first-year students, only 48% of Black students earned their degree in six years systemwide. At Sacramento State, 42% of Black students graduated in 2022, representing the Fall 2016 cohort too.

CSU released the report in June 2023, highlighting 13 recommendations for advancing Black student success. The recommendations range from a comprehensive enrollment strategy for Black students to the creation of a Central Office for the Advancement of Black Excellence. 

The report is the product of a CSU Black Student Success Workgroup called for by Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester following the system's inaugural Juneteenth symposium last summer. 

CSU selected members for the workgroup from the system's 23 universities based on expertise and knowledge in the areas of student success, specifically Black student success. Members met regularly as a full workgroup and in smaller teams centered around topics like attracting more Black students to the CSU, supporting student retention and persistence for Black students once enrolled, examining campus culture and belonging and exploring the role of faculty and staff in Black student success.

Sacramento State president Dr. Luke Wood serves on the workgroup. He says the University is taking action to improve enrollment, retention and graduation rates for Black students. That includes supporting the recruitment and retention of Black faculty and staff, developing and implementing inclusive and culturally-relevant curriculum, creating welcoming and affirming spaces and more.

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"Our graduation rates look different for our Black and African American students than they should," Wood said. "One of the things that we're focused on is training our faculty and staff, thinking about how we do our hiring, increasing our support services for students so that every single Black student, when they come here, I can look their family members in the eye and say that they have the ability, opportunity and support to walk across that stage at graduation."

The cost of college is a challenge for students. The CSU system is considering raising tuition by 6% for five consecutive years, starting with the Fall 2024 term. Many CSU students and staff say the tuition hike would create a burden for those already struggling financially and could hinder progress on Black student success.

The CSU Board of Trustees comes with 25 members responsible for adopting regulations and policies governing the entire CSU system. Board committees have authority over educational policy, finance, campus planning and facilities, among other areas. 

Wood said that the decision for a possible tuition increase does not happen at the campus level. Instead, the Board of Trustees makes the final decision for increasing or decreasing tuition rates. If a tuition hike happens, Wood says, Sacramento State will address any potential barriers for all students.

"We're focused on increasing the number of scholarships for our students, improving our financial processing and the barriers that we keep on hearing about in processing and distribution of scholarships," Wood said. "We're focused on expanding our support services for students. What's really beautiful about a place like Sac State is that this is an institution, and it's one of the reasons why I came here, that is truly dedicated to supporting our Black and African American students."

Grace agrees. She says she's seen improvements on campus, but believes more can be done.

"I'm really happy at Sac State," Ballou said. "Each day, I think they're creating organizations to make sure that we are alright and I even learn about organizations that I did not know before. I'm really hopeful for the future."

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