CSUMB's Largest Commencement Should be Larger

On May 16, Cal State Monterey Bay will celebrate the successes of more than 1,500 graduates at our 19th annual commencement ceremony.

It will be our largest commencement ever, but it will not be large enough. The unfortunate fact is that Cal State Monterey Bay and the entire CSU system are not adequately funded to meet the demand from all qualified California students.

That represents a loss for those students, and for our state.

That point was driven home again by a recent article by New York Times reporter David Leonhardt. The article examined two recent academic studies that tracked thousands of people over the past two decades, primarily in Florida and Georgia.

According to Leonhardt, those states have hard cut-offs for admission to public four-year schools. Students who exceed specified grade point average and standardized test score standards are admitted; most of those who those who fall short are not.

That gave researchers a chance to examine the divergent life courses of students with very similar academic backgrounds, who happened to fall on one side or the other of these lines.

“The two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions,” Leonardt writes. “Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.”

In Georgia, roughly half of the students who got into four-year schools earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, while only 17 percent of students who missed the admissions cutoff did. In Florida, students who made it over the line earned 22 percent more by their late 20s than students who fell on the wrong side.

Again, we are talking about students with very similar academic records. Opportunity made a huge difference in their lives.

Of course, it wasn’t the graduates alone who reaped the benefits. Higher incomes lead to higher tax revenues.The graduates find family-wage jobs, and often start businesses that create them as well. College graduates are less likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system, less likely to go on welfare or unemployment.

In fact, Leonhardt reports that the unemployment rate among college graduates ages 25-34 is only 2 percent and the pay gap between college graduates and the rest of the population is near a record high.

Cal State Monterey Bay was founded upon, and is still guided by, a Vision Statement that calls on us to “be distinctive in serving the diverse people of California, especially the working class and historically undereducated and low-income populations.” Fifty-six percent of our students are first-generation; 44 percent are from underrepresented minority groups; and 34 percent are low-income.

In the early days of our campus, I am sure that faculty, staff and administrators heard that many of these underrepresented students weren’t “college material.” Those judgments were wrong then and they are wrong today.

Our students are accomplishing some remarkable things. However, we know that, both as a campus and a university system, there is much more we can do, if we are funded to do so.

Last fall, we stretched our resources and facilities to admit by far our largest freshman class. Now, to stay within available funding, we have taken steps to allow us to control enrollment from outside our three-county service area of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

This year, we plan to use our small increase in state funding to help pay for last fall’s surge; we expect our overall enrollment will not increase.

Meanwhile, our application numbers continue to rise. We saw a 5.3 percent increase in freshmen applications this year over last year, with more than 15,000 first-time freshmen applying for admission. That number has gone up 12 percent over the last two years.

At a time when economists predict that California faces a potential shortage of 1 million college graduates to fill available jobs over the next decade, all these applicants should be nothing but good news. However, too many qualified students are not able to gain admission to CSUMB and other public colleges and universities.

There should be no argument about some fundamental realities. Our state needs more college graduates. College opportunities make a significant and lasting difference in the life of an individual student. And those individual benefits, when added together, make a dramatic difference for our economy and our society as a whole.

That’s why we need to muster the political will to find a way –as a state and as a nation – to open the doors to higher education more widely.

(Published in the Monterey Herald and the Salinas Californian)