When Alexander Enyedi arrived in town from Western Michigan in January of 2016 to take over as Humboldt State University's new provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, his United Airlines flight from San Francisco touched down after dark in a driving rain. He'd mailed some of his possessions out ahead of him, and they waited in a small rental apartment. When he got there, he didn't know anyone and realized he had to ask a stranger where to find the nearest grocery store.
It was a fitting introduction for the man who would be charged with finding new ways to help HSU support and retain its students, efforts that have proven challenging in this rural, isolated stretch of the North Coast, especially as the campus demographic has shifted sharply in recent years. While HSU's retention rates — which lag behind those of the California State University System — have long been a point of internal consternation for the university, they were thrust under a microscope last spring when, after the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson, a black HSU sophomore, a number of minority students publicly complained about a lack of support on campus in the face of racism off campus. Seemingly all of a sudden, online comments sections and social media pages were filled with locals opining about the changing demographics of the university and whether HSU is doing enough to ensure the success of students recruited from homes hundreds of miles away.
The face of HSU is changing, to be sure. In the fall of 2000, 67 percent of the university's 7,400 students were white, less than 8 percent were Latino and about 2 percent were black. In contrast, last fall, HSU's student body was only 44 percent white, while its Latino population jumped to 34 percent and its black population inched up to 3 percent. And that trend seems to be accelerating, judging from this year's freshman class, which is 42 percent Latino, 4 percent black and 36 percent white. That's a large shift, and it's not by accident.
Steve Ladwig, HSU's interim director of admissions, who came to HSU as a freshman in 1986 and is fond of stating that he's starting his 63rd semester on campus, says the demographic shift on campus is the result of public policy.
"The CSU is a public university, right, so therefore we need to serve the public," he says. "Our admissions target set by the whole system is that our campus needs to reflect the state in terms of demographics."
In a lengthy phone interview with the Journal, Ladwig explains HSU's recruitment policies and efforts. He says there's no quotas and no sliding scales, but the university is keenly aware of its mandate to make sure its freshman classes are representative of the general demographics of California's college-ready graduating high school seniors. The primary goal is to make HSU accessible to everyone throughout the state who is eligible to attend, he says, adding that recruiters in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Inland Empire work hard to tout HSU's small class sizes, field learning opportunities and integrated curriculums, like the Klamath Connection.
But he says the university also keeps close tabs on its incoming classes as they take shape and — if one demographic is lagging behind state averages — will target recruiting efforts accordingly. And he says recruiters work to make personal connections with prospective students, giving out their email addresses and phone numbers, and making frequent contact. After all, with hundreds of four-year colleges and universities in the Golden State looking to fill their rolls, college recruitment is a competitive endeavor. But Ladwig is quick to say that HSU's recruiters are up front about the university, its strengths and weaknesses, and its surrounding county, which is 84 percent white. This represents a bit of a culture change in the admissions department, Ladwig says.
"We don't want anyone to get up here and to feel like we didn't sell them the university, that we sold them something that doesn't exist," he says.
But for a variety of reasons HSU has historically seen students drop out at rates disproportionate to other CSUs.
Last year, for example, only 70.2 percent of HSU's freshman class from the year before returned to campus to continue their studies, a more than 13 percent difference from the rest of the CSU system. Over the last decade, 83 percent of CSU freshmen return for their sophomore year, 10 percent more than at HSU over the same span.
When breaking down retention numbers by demographics, none of HSU's largest categories — white, black, Latino — outpace their state counterparts. The largest retention gap over the last decade is among white students at HSU, with 10 percent fewer advancing to their second year of college than at other CSUs.
So what's the problem at HSU? It's complicated, according to Enyedi.
"If there was just one answer, we'd have already fixed it," he says. "When it comes to retention, there's no silver bullet."
To be sure, there are some things about the situation that are beyond HSU's control. In the eyes of some, the weather leaves something to be desired. It is also the most isolated of the CSUs, meaning it is hundreds of miles away from most of its students' homes. That poses a retention challenge but HSU recently took a small step to help. Last year, for the first time, the university chartered buses to and from Los Angeles over winter break. It was a simple thing to do — and some charge it should have been done long ago — but it helped students get home to see their families and return for the start of the spring semester.
But HSU faces a variety of other challenges — from the big to the small to the downright daunting — in making sure students stay here.
On the more complex side, the university has recognized that academic trouble can often lead students to leave campus. Consequently, it's beefed up tutoring services, in many cases offering it free of charge in residence halls. It's also ramped up support services for students who need remedial work in math and writing, and revamped programs to foster better student-faculty relationships and help freshmen and sophomores get into their areas of focus more quickly.
And recognizing that forming strong peer bonds can be crucial to success, the university is leaning more on integrated curriculums that keep students together, get them out of the classrooms and — sometimes — even have them living grouped in cohorts on campus.
But Enyedi and others stress that a key component of student success is giving them a sense of belonging while making them feel invested and connected. And that's where the larger off-campus community can play a key role.
Steve St. Onge, HSU's director of housing and residence life, says he's looked to build annual traditions that get students out in the community. One example of that, he says, came last weekend, when staff brought about 400 new freshmen down to the Farmers Market on the Arcata Plaza, where students visited with locals while munching pizza donated by local businesses and Arcata Main Street.
And as the demographics of the university continue to change, Ladwig says it's all the more important that both sides work to foster closer relationships between the campus and the community, especially as they grow to look increasingly different.
"This is what the rest of California looks like and we really benefit from embracing that, embracing what these folks bring to this campus from out of the area," he says. "I live in the community and I work at HSU, and I almost need a passport to get here because it's a different world, and that's a really great thing."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.