Commentary: Why Is Black Student Enrollment So Low At UC San Diego? It’s A Longstanding Problem.​

Union-Tribune Editorial Page August 23, 2020

On the Photo: UC San Diego students and their supporters raise their fists in solidarity during a Black Student Union press conference turned rally outside Price Center to address race-related issues at the school.(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


An article by Gary Robbins published in  on Aug. 10 about Black students wanting to expand their tiny presence on campus posed the question, “Why are there still so few Black undergraduates at UC San Diego after nearly 60 years?”


As one of the first Black graduates from UC San Diego, who later served 13 years as associate vice chancellor for student affairs, I will try to shed some light on the reasons for this longstanding problem and suggest some solutions.


As one of the leading public universities in America, it plays a major role in our community, and the fact that UC San Diego annually has the lowest portion of Black undergraduates within the entire UC system at 2.8% means that the San Diego area is losing out on the opportunity every year to have hundreds of additional well-educated African American teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, employers, and nonprofit and civic leaders enriching the vitality and diversity of our community.


From an educational perspective, the tiny portion of Black students at UC San Diego means the other students are not graduating prepared for life in real America. Interacting with other cultures and races is one of the key learning experiences that should be part of college education, according to higher education experts. Conversely, the student testimonials in Mr. Robbins’ article demonstrate that the ultra-minority Black student experience is extremely stressful not just academically but personally.


So why is Black enrollment so low at UC San Diego? More than 3,500 African Americans have every year for the last three years, according to UC data, so they want to come. During the same period, an average of 850 of these Black applicants was admitted annually, meaning they are fully qualified to be UC San Diego students.


The problem is that typically only 18% of admitted Black students, about 158, decide to accept the offer and actually attend UC San Diego. Remember, these are top students, so they have choices. Most decide to go elsewhere for two main reasons: a better-perceived environment for Black students (e.g., larger numbers and better student life) and/or a better financial package (smaller loan or family financial burden).


The first is a circular problem for UC San Diego: It needs more Black students to attract more. The second is purely financial and simpler to solve. And solving it is key to increasing Black enrollment at UC San Diego and with it the benefits that the San Diego community deserves.


So what can be done to address the one enrollment variable that we have some control over, the financial barrier? Lower-income students generally receive higher amounts of grant funds (Pell grants and others, for example), but they still must borrow money to attend UC San Diego. This is a real problem, even for middle-income African Americans, because statistically they earn less and have only 10% of the family wealth that Caucasian families have on average.


The university cannot offer Black students more grant funds or scholarships than other students due to Proposition 209 restrictions. Private universities in California and elsewhere do not face this limitation and they siphon off many admitted UC San Diego Black students. However, private scholarship funds apart from the university are free to award scholarships to Black students. The largest such fund here is the UC San Diego Black Alumni Scholarship Fund (BASF) housed at The San Diego Foundation.


Operating for over 30 years, BASF has awarded 112 renewable scholarships to UC San Diego-admitted Black students over the last five years. Moreover, the BASF’s hands-on approach has convinced most admits to accept the BASF scholarship and come to UC San Diego rather than go elsewhere. BASF has worked with the campus to ensure these scholarship recipients have enrichments such as mentors, excellent academic advising, access to summer transition programs, structured events with faculty, and experiential learning opportunities including internships and community service that give them both real-world experiences and closer ties to the San Diego community, raising the likelihood that they will remain after graduation.


The enrichments also add considerable value to the scholarship and help attract the most outstanding students. The BASF board, consisting of UC San Diego alumni and community volunteers, is seeking partners to grow its enriched scholarship offerings from the current level of 20 renewable scholarships annually to 100 or more within the next few years, with corresponding increases in the endowment. Such growth would be transformative for both the campus and the San Diego community.


Spriggs served as the associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UC San Diego from 2001 to 2014 and is the current vice-chair of the UC San Diego Black Alumni Scholarship Fund. He lives in Imperial Beach.


Editor’s Note: University of California President Michael Drake and UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla both declined invitations to write about the racial inequities at San Diego’s largest university, UC San Diego.