In a university that embraces the value of diversity, Fresno State is still working to close the student achievement gap between various races and ethnicities that embody the campus.
Dr. Angel Sanchez, director of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, said the gap between graduation rates “has been going up, but not at the leaps and bounds we want it to be.”
“It’s still a very persistent gap between non-underrepresented minorities, in which majority of that group is white, and underrepresented minorities, who are Hispanic/Latino, African-American and Native American,” Sanchez said.
The current Fresno State statistics show that while whites graduate at a 4-year rate of 27.1 percent, other races trail significantly. The rate for Hispanics/Latinos is 11 percent, Asians 8.1 percent and African-Americans 7.4 percent.
Six-year graduation rates also show a similar trend, now being the overall average time it takes a Fresno State student to graduate at 48.6 percent. Whites graduate at a rate of 57.3 percent, Hispanics/Latinos 46.2 percent, Asians 43.6 percent and African-Americans 30.9 percent.
Yet, as Sanchez emphasizes, these numbers are just the start of tackling the wider issue and understanding the distinct diversity of the San Joaquin Valley’s population.
“In this area of retention rates and graduation rates, the story really begins with who we are as Fresno State and who we serve,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez explained that in serving the Valley, the influx of students coming through the K-12 public school system into Fresno State are increasingly challenged with adversity issues related to financial uncertainty, such as high poverty or unemployment.
Dr. Sarah Whitley, a professor in sociology of education, said such variables during K-12 translate “into college-level skills coming into the university.”
“If we look at how education is structured in the United States, we provide different qualities of education,” Whitley said. “Low-income populations tend to not get a high quality, or the best quality of education.”
Whitley said the education received prior to college acts as a crucial “pipeline” for student success.
“I think all the way from elementary school,” Whitley said. “I mean, we teach students differently based on class and the type of education.
“Curriculum and skills that are being taught to low-income students are significantly different than middle-and-upper-income students. That’s going to then affect the types of skills that they have when they do go on past high school, or if they go on past high school.”
However, Sanchez said that serving this distinct population is the vision and mission of Fresno State and the other two California State University colleges in the Valley, CSU Bakersfield and CSU Stanislaus.
“The pipeline that we serve is becoming increasingly diverse, increasingly larger numbers of first-generation, increasingly larger numbers that require remediation,” Sanchez said. “That’s what we’re getting, and that’s who we serve and that’s what’s in the San Joaquin Valley.”
But, as Sanchez said, it is Fresno State’s duty to take in such challenged students.
“If they meet the eligibility requirements, we take that population,” Sanchez said. “This raw resource that comes in here, we’re graduating 50 percent of those – that is doing something; that is doing a lot.”
The reality of the situation is that the populations requiring remediation heading into college are underrepresented minorities – Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans.
While the Asian population is not included as a minority, Sanchez said that the large Hmong population in Fresno, which is the second largest in the United States, deals with “many of the same characteristics as other underrepresented minorities.”
Once these minorities enter college-level education, what is Fresno State doing to facilitate their needs?
There are many support programs promoting student success on campus, both geared toward the entire student body and others more specific to ethnicities.
“We are all striving to help our students feel, believe [and] experience belonging,” Sanchez said. “That makes for success.”
One initiative is First Year Experience, a program that is aimed toward first-generation students. With 71.6 percent of new undergraduates being first-generation students, Sanchez said this group faces “enormous implications” in its ability to navigate through a complex and bureaucratic higher education system.
He said First Year Experience gives those students support to “help them connect and become engaged” within the unfamiliar structure.
A major program for the Hispanic/Latino population is Title V: Commitment to Latina/o Academic Success & Excellence (CLASE), a five-year grant distributed in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education. Fresno State is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, meaning that, because of the school’s high Hispanic population of 40.6 percent, it qualifies for special government funding that addresses the needs of a diverse student body.
Dr. Adrian Ramirez, the director of Title V, said CLASE has “transformed the academic environment and made significant and sustainable contributions toward Hispanic student success.”
The support program has a joint partnership between Academic Programs and Student Affairs, the two branches combining to see an increase in retention rates, graduation rates and training faculty to support redesigned courses.
In Ramirez’s opinion, recent efforts by the administration have improved from past “policies that favored majority groups over the others.”
“In the past, I don’t think the university administration wanted to believe students come from diverse cultural backgrounds,” he said. “Now, they realize policies and academic instruction need to include other perspectives in order to ensure minority student success.”
Another minority success program is the African-American Edge Initiative, primarily focused on African-Americans, the demographic with the lowest graduation rates. Formed in 2010, it also aims to improve retention and graduation rates.
With a focus on mentoring, advising and counseling, Edge Initiative helps to build “resiliency” for African-Americans to navigate through the system, said Dr. Malik Raheem of the Kremen School’s counselor education and rehabilitation department.
Raheem was recruited for the Edge Initiative to address psychosocial development among African-American students by helping them feel a “sense of community and try to build some of their racial identity.”
“That includes working on their sense of belonging and dealing with different issues that black students face,” Raheem said. “Because historically, the institutionalizing racism makes them feel like outcasts.”
He also said that African-Americans in college often deal with the “stereotype threat,” or the pressure of having to represent their entire race through academic measures.
“It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Raheem said. “They start internalizing all these negative things they hear throughout their lives.”
While focusing on psychosocial development is the “best avenue” when working with minority students in college, Raheem believes long-term schematic approaches should be geared toward encouraging students in K-12.
“You’ve got to start giving them the sense that college is really in their future,” Raheem said.
Yet while there are a number of programs working toward student success, another issue is whether students know about such support services. Whitley believes increasing awareness is crucial to seeing an increase in graduation rates.
“We have a lot of services on campus,” Whitley said. “But I think having further efforts of letting students know what those services are and when they’re available and why they’re available could go a long way.”
Sanchez believes graduation success is not only important to Fresno State, but also to the entire San Joaquin Valley population. Recognizing that most of the university’s graduates stay in the Valley, he said there is a wider “economic engine piece” to the academic achievement.
“We produce graduates and they go back out there to the community,” Sanchez said.
Ramirez also emphasized that the significance of creating diverse graduates will “enrich the lives of students and inherently their families and the communities in the Central Valley.”
“The future of the health and economic vitality of the Central Valley depends upon ensuring educational and professional development opportunities for all residents, including students from diverse backgrounds,” Ramirez said.