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Officials spread gospel of higher education at Black churches across the state By Chris Levister Special to the NNPA from the Blackvoicenews.comAs church goers at Ecclesia Christian Fellowship lifted their voices in song Sunday, others came to the San Bernardino church on Date Street to spread the gospel about the benefits of not just getting into college but graduating.Cal State's six year old Super Sunday initiative aims to demonstrate to young African Americans that a college degree is within their reach. But, with deep budget cuts, larger class sizes and increasing fees, the successful campaign is operating in its most challenging economic environment ever.Cal State campuses have been forced to cut classes, stalling efforts by many students to complete degrees. The university used about $25 million in one-time federal stimulus funds to bring back some of those classes. In 2010 CSU embarked on a 23 campus initiative to raise its graduation rates and help more low income and minority students earn degrees."I'm here to tell you despite whatever budgetary circumstances there are, our commitment to enrolling and graduating more African American students is greater, stronger than it's ever been," cried the man addressing the congregation. The words came not from Ecclesia pastor Joshua Beckley, but the president of California State University San Bernardino, Al Karnig.On Sundays throughout February, Karnig and other CSU officials fanned out to more than 100 Black churches aiming their message mainly at the families of middle-school children, preaching the idea that's it's never too early to prepare for college. "There are tremendous sacrifices to winding your way to an undergraduate degree. There are significant advantages and benefits to making those sacrifices," said Karnig.Today only one in five African American students is eligible for CSU, Karnig told hundreds of worshipers who packed the pews. "Partner with us so we can get the other four eligible, too!" 10-year-old Amon Miles Perdreau persuaded his parents, Terrell and Edwyna, who immigrated from Haiti to drive from their home in Temecula to attend the Super Sunday event. The gospel of higher education was music to his ears."He told me if I work hard at school. I can go to college and become an architect. I want to build tall buildings in downtown L.A., maybe a hospital for sick kids.""Everybody talks about the budget cuts, but you still have to get the message across to young people and their parents because without a college education you're facing an ugly future," said Terrell."It's extremely important that the middle school kids hear this message. They need to know that you can reach the promised-land with an education," said Edwyna."Getting in is just the first step," Karnig told the crowd. "Amen thank you Jesus," said a man slapping his hands. "You got to graduate. You got to get that degree," he shouted.The university has set a goal of boosting its six-year graduation rate by eight per cent by 2016, bringing it to 54 per cent, in line with the top national averages at similar institutions.University leaders say they hope to raise graduation rates for underrepresented minority students by 10 per cent, cutting in half what has been a thorny achievement gap in degree completion compared with White students."There are simple things the university can do, like having faculty members take class attendance and if a student misses two or three times, call, text or e-mail to find out why," said Debra Masters, an elementary school teacher. "The goal should be to help them get back on track before they get a failing grade and give up hope.""We can give better academic advice to make sure students are on the right path to graduation. We can give them online road maps, a GPS sort of speak, so they can see over the next several semesters what courses they need to take to graduate. The key is paying more attention," said Karnig.He said the San Bernardino campus has the second highest African-American percentage of any California university. "We also have the very highest retention rate for first and second year of any of the 23 (CSU campuses)," Karnig said. At the same time, Karnig said that among Black graduates throughout the country, only about one-third are men. He told the congregation 56 per cent of Cal State San Bernardino students don't pay any fees because of various grants and scholarships."Even as it faces the grimmest budget outlook in its history, given the changing demographics in the region our universities, including CSU, must do a better job not just admitting students but graduating African American and Latino kids in particular," said Ecclesia pastor Rev. Joshua Beckley, whose wife, daughter, and son-in law graduated from Cal State.He warned that cutting classes, raising fees, and reducing some general education requirements in order to graduate more students could compromise quality."It's one thing to move more students toward graduation. The big thing is to ensure that the quality of that degree is not compromised. Employers are looking for more than a piece of paper."