The products in the Rite Aid hair care aisle were not designed for industrial engineering senior Logan Kregness.
His hair is thick, curly and dense — an unmistakable contrast to the hair on the models featured on the products. They have shiny, controlled hair. Kregness pulled out his own plastic comb and held it up next to the other combs on the Rite Aid aisle. None of them, not even the one in his hand, stood a chance against his hair.
“I bought this comb here, and it’s … sufficient,” Kregness said. “It’s not metal. It gets a lot of static, and this is all we have to work with.”
He gestured toward the homogenous faces on the labels. “It’s all marketed to white women. I guess it makes sense and all, but even metal picks are really cheap. They’re like a dollar anywhere else.”
Not here. There literally are no metal picks.
Cal Poly’s Fall 2015 Fact Book identifies 166 enrolled black students. That’s less than 1 percent of the total population. Kregness is one of them.
Cal Poly’s administrators call increasing diversity, notably among students of color, a primary goal. When they talk about the low numbers, they point to two main obstacles: The first is Proposition 209, which prohibits using race as a criteria for selecting students at California’s public colleges. The second is a lack of funding, which they note could be used for scholarships for people
Reason one: No diversity
However, for Kregness, the issue is even more nuanced. It has to do, for example, with a lack of barbershops; a lack of places with patrons that look like him. And yes, a lack of combs.
Kregness is the events coordinator for Cal Poly’s Black Student Union, which returned to campus two years ago after a nearly decade-long hiatus. The problem is real enough that a showcase is planned in February to promote black-owned and black-marketed products.
Kregness said he had a full social circle of black friends at the beginning of his freshman year to bond with over these shared experiences.
Now, he’s the only one left.
Among the most high-profile black staff members to leave last year was Annie Holmes, who spent three years as executive director of University Diversity & Inclusivity. She listed quality of life and challenges “impacting diversity at an institutional level” as reasons for resigning in an interview with Mustang News last December.
Kari Mansager is the program manager for Cal Poly’s Office of Diversity & Inclusivity. The office’s purpose is to make recommendations to the administration for creating a more open campus. Mansager said the challenge of creating a welcoming atmosphere doesn’t just exist on campus, but in the surrounding towns where faculty live. It’s challenging to retain faculty and staff when residential areas are so Caucasian.
“We do lose quite a few staff and faculty of color who come here and live here,” Mansager said. “Being on campus is one thing, but then they go out into their communities and it’s even whiter. Their kids are the only students of color in their class, maybe just a few in the entire school.”
In terms of retaining black students, Mansager said it’s a big cycle. Students of color tour the campus and the reflection of themselves isn’t there.
“It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said, “Because we don’t have a lot of students, staff and faculty, the ones we’re trying to bring here and are qualified to get in here don’t see themselves here.”
The issue becomes even more complicated when one looks back at past enrollment. Cal Poly has never had a significant black population, but it wasn’t always so small. In Fall 1975, Cal Poly counted 13,115 enrolled students. Of those students, 240 were black. As a percentage of total enrollment, black students made up 1.8 percent. In Fall of 2015, 166 of Cal Poly’s total enrollment of 20,944 were black, or 0.8 percent.
Despite a growth in enrollment by several thousand, the black student population hasn’t increased. It’s actually numerically smaller than what it was 40 years ago.
Reason two: No affirmative action
Jean DeCosta, the executive director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusivity, said Proposition 209 takes a share of the blame.
In November of 1996, Prop. 209 was on the ballot for California voters. It prohibited the State of California from considering race, sex or ethnicity with regards to public education, among other things.
Effectively, the proposition undid affirmative action for all public education institutions in California. When it passed with 55 percent support, Cal Poly no longer had a legal means to ensure that a certain percentage of enrolled students were black.
“Prop. 209 really impacted the ability to recruit individuals of color I think much more than anybody envisioned that it would,” DeCosta said.
That impact is evident in student enrollment.
Much of the black enrollment rate decline between the 1970s and today came after Prop. 209 went into effect. In Fall 1996, 1.8 percent of Cal Poly’s incoming students were black. In Fall 1999, 0.6 percent of incoming students were black.
The law passed 20 years ago. After numerous attempts to overturn, Prop. 209 is still in place, as are its effects. In Fall 2015, 41 of Cal Poly’s 4,973 incoming students were black.
Reason three: No state funding for scholarships
Another obstacle, DeCosta said, is sheer dollars.
In the past, the state of California paid for the majority of student tuition to public universities in the state.
“In 1975, 90 percent of tuition to Cal Poly was paid by the state,” DeCosta said. “Now, it’s like 15 percent, and the students have to come up with it. Who wants to have a $100,000 loan when they leave an undergraduate program?”
With those funds on the decline, the burden of payment is left on students and their support systems.
“As state dollars have dried up, the ability to cover the cost of education for people who are poor is more difficult,” DeCosta said. “Cal Poly’s an expensive campus to attend, people who come out of poor backgrounds often cannot afford Cal Poly.”
DeCosta said that the universities Cal Poly competes with for students, like University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles, are able to offset this effect with private funding that Cal Poly doesn’t have.
“We were not able, as a state institution, to give scholarship monies the way UCs are able to give them. We’re not as rich,” DeCosta said.
So, DeCosta asked, who could blame students who pick, say, University of California, Berkeley over Cal Poly?
“We’re competing with them. They can give people so much more than we can offer, and they’re choosing to go there,” she said. “I really get that.”
DeCosta said the administration is working to develop the funding pools necessary to attract students to Cal Poly and finance their tuition. She hopes to see those efforts come to fruition and recruit more students to the campus who are otherwise turned off from enrolling. But change is slow, and sometimes frustrating.
Reasons to not give up
As for Kregness, he’s tired of strangers touching his hair.
He’s tired of being the only black student in classes and being looked at to represent the “black perspective.” He said he never asked to be made the mouthpiece for the experiences of a whole race.
“A lot of times when there’s topics directed towards black history or black culture,” Kregness said. “I get those stares back to me. I’ve had many times when professors actually ask me to speak about things — be the voice of my ethnicity. I shouldn’t have to do that. I don’t speak for everybody.”
Between those experiences and San Luis Obispo’s lack of diversity, most of Kregness’ freshman year friends left Cal Poly.
“A lot of people left freshman year,” he said. “A lot of people I knew left because they weren’t interested at all in San Luis Obispo.”
The metrics of Cal Poly’s 2015 Interim Report reflect his observations. According to the report, six-year graduation rates for black males at Cal Poly were at 53.8 percent in 2012, down from 66.7 percent in 2011. However, the six-year graduation rate for black females was 80 percent in 2012 — approximately the same as white females.
Kregness is optimistic and proud, despite what sometimes feels like an uphill battle. He and his peers work to revive parts of campus by and for black students; the Black Student Union and Society of Black Engineers and Scientists are two examples. The National Organization of Minority Architecture Students has a chapter on campus. Kregness also founded his own club called Music Production Union. He even says there are discussions of a return of black greek life to campus.
“Those clubs are what made me decide to stay here,” Kregness said.
Much of his college career has been about creating a culture on campus for future students that wasn’t available to him. He hopes he hasn’t martyred himself for nothing and that maybe, down the line, metal picks won’t be such a luxury in San Luis Obispo.