When Dr. Timothy P. White takes the pulpit at Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Sunday, he expects to hear footsteps and feel polite arm-tugging afterward. That’s what happens every time the California State University chief addresses African-American church congregants about the value of a college degree.
On Sundays throughout February, coinciding with Black History Month, White and other top CSU officials are speaking to churches throughout the state about preparing for college, the CSU application process and financial aid. Known as “Super Sundays,” one key tenet of the messages emphasizes that students should begin planning for college by the time they’re in middle school by taking courses that adequately prepare them for the rigors of postsecondary education.
Since 2006, CSU leaders including the chancellor, trustees, campus presidents, and other representatives have spoken to more than 400,000 churchgoers. The program has expanded from 11 churches in southern California in 2006 to this year, 100-plus houses of worship throughout the state participating.
Last Sunday, White addressed members of a church in Fresno, a city in the state’s central valley where last December, unemployment was 12.4 percent, compared with only 8.3 percent statewide.
Right after the event at the Fresno church, White was peppered with questions from a woman in her 30s, one arm balancing a toddler on her hip and her hand steering her teenage son toward the chancellor. “Overwhelmingly, it’s the same,” White says. “The reaction is, ‘I didn’t know college could be for us.’”
Jorge Haynes, Cal State’s senior director for external relations, says that parishioners often do a double-take upon hearing that a family of four with annual household income of $70,000 or less might qualify for enough grants to cover university tuition. “They’re so surprised that they’re wondering if the chancellor said $70,000 or $7,000,” Haynes says.
This resonates with Dr. Rhoushelle Bozeman, a member of the Los Angeles church where White is scheduled to appear Sunday. “We hear about budget cuts to education on the TV news, so people think there’s no chance for their kids,” she says. “But there are still ways to go to college, and we have to stop them from giving up.”
Bozeman believes that historically, African-American families have relied too much on high school counselors for college entrance how-to’s and academic preparation. “We need to be more pro-active and not sit on our hands.”
The need is apparent when examining Cal State enrollment across the 23 campuses.
Last fall, African-Americans made up only 4.6 percent of the system-wide undergraduate enrollment. The previous year was 4.8 percent and in fall 2011, it was 5 percent. African-American undergraduate enrollment has been slipping since it topped 6 percent every fall from 2005-08. Furthermore, it was 5.8 percent in 2004 — a year before then-Chancellor Charles Reed and a Los Angeles church pastor convened business, civic and education leaders to discuss how to encourage more Black youth to attend college.
Dr. Horace Mitchell, president of CSU Bakersfield, freely says, “There is still much more work to be done.” As another example, he notes, only about 19 percent of African-American high school graduates in California have the academic credentials to attend a Cal State campus.
Mitchell recalls how church leaders in 2006 urged Cal State to make its outreach “effective and sustained” rather than a so-called one-and-done effort. Since the first round of “Super Sunday” presentations, the program has spawned a companion college fair in the summer. Cal State now sponsors a summer algebra institute, too, at churches, where for five weeks middle school students are immersed in the subject in order to strengthen their overall math skills. Cal State officials also meet regularly with church pastors as well as education liaisons like Bozeman to determine what other components to add to the program.
Although Super Sundays occur only in February, Cal State officials try to repeat their messaging through various mechanisms all year long, Bozeman says, to remind African-Americans about what it takes to get into college.
At her church, for instance, the regular bulletins of news and announcements will often include reminders about application deadlines for admissions and the deadline to submit applications for federal financial aid. College preparation seminars throughout the year at the church emphasize that parents seek out the appropriate high school courses their children need to qualify for higher education and if they aren’t available in their school district, to search for options through private organizations and share their findings with other parents. Bozeman has also shown clips from the TV sitcom “A Different World” to illustrate what life is like at an HBCU.
“Cal State has given us the impetus to do more,” she says. “College is not something you plan for when you hit senior year of high school.”