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Diversity Lagging at Cal Poly

A largely automated admissions process hinders minority applicants at San Luis Obispo campus.

March 21, 2004|Stuart Silverstein and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

Sheva Diagne, a high school senior with strong grades and SAT scores, is intrigued by the array of options for college. She has applied to a long list of top institutions, public and private, and anticipates struggling with her final choice.

But it was easy for her to rule out one of the first schools she visited, California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

While attending an outreach program two years ago, Diagne was immediately struck by the scarcity of minority students on campus. With a friend, she found herself counting the number of blacks.

"I don't remember how many the number was, but we didn't have very many," said Diagne, who is black. "We were looking around and thinking, 'Hey, what's going on?' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal Poly -- An article in Sunday's California section on the low minority enrollment at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo used incorrect word order in giving the university's full name. It is California Polytechnic State University, not California State Polytechnic University.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is widely regarded as the academic star of the California State University system and ranks as one of the best regional universities in the West. It regularly competes for strong students against top UC schools. And it often wins.

Yet by another measure, Cal Poly falls short when compared with other selective California schools: its enrollment of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

Only 12.9% of Cal Poly's undergraduates belong to those traditionally underrepresented minority groups, according to the latest data collected from the vast majority of students. That is the lowest rate among the 30 California public universities with comprehensive undergraduate programs.

Even with a state ban on affirmative action, enrollment of underrepresented groups has risen at other Cal State and UC campuses in recent years. At Cal Poly, the numbers started tumbling from a high of 18.9% in the late 1990s and have never rebounded.

The campus "is monochromatic, with mostly white people," said Dan Guerrant, a white senior majoring in aerospace engineering, voicing one of his few complaints about the school.

Cal Poly provides a case study in what can happen when a highly selective school, prohibited from considering applicants' race and ethnicity, makes few allowances for weighing other personal qualities in the admissions process.

Cal Poly admits students largely by the numbers -- grade point averages and test scores. Admissions decisions are so automated that applicants don't even submit an essay, and no one in the admissions office actually reads a typical application.

The contrast with UC schools is striking. They consider such factors as students' ability to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and other hardships -- a process that can be subjective and lately has proved controversial. Two regents have questioned whether the system amounts to backdoor affirmative action.

Cal Poly faces a different problem, educators say.

A numbers-driven system at a selective university is "an invitation for really low minority enrollments," said Bob Laird, one of the architects of UC Berkeley's admissions policies in the 1990s.

School officials say they don't have the money to adopt a more holistic approach, which is labor-intensive.

In January, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Cal Poly for discrimination, contending that the campus' heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.

Blacks also score lower on average. The SAT counts for up to 35% of the points an applicant can receive.

Victor Viramontes, a defense fund lawyer handling the case, said the university compounds the problem by trumpeting the high average scores its students earn -- a factor that could turn off potential Latino and black applicants.

SATs for this year's enrolled freshmen averaged 1196, higher than the scores for UC Santa Barbara or UC Davis. In the most recent ranking by U.S. News & World Report, Cal Poly placed fifth in the West among universities that concentrate on bachelor's and master's programs. The next-closest Cal State school was Cal State Chico, in 29th place.

Cal Poly has the look and atmosphere of a private school, despite an enrollment of 18,000. The hilly campus' buildings are low-rise, classes normally are taught by regular faculty rather than graduate students. Relatively few of the students are commuters or working adults, and, as at some elite private schools, everyone must complete a senior project to graduate.

Students like Guerrant, an aerospace engineering student, are a point of pride at Cal Poly. An academic standout in high school with a nearly perfect SAT score of 1590, Guerrant chose Cal Poly after turning down such prestigious campuses as UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego.

Guerrant figures the school's good reputation in technical fields will help launch his professional career. He also likes the campus' small classes and practical approach to education.

"Cal Poly's motto is 'learn by doing,' and I like to get my hands on things," he said.

Still, Guerrant laments that Cal Poly's social environment can be bland. "I miss the racial diversity," he said. "I like being around people of different cultures."

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