California Forum

A partnership that could get a lot more kids into college: CSU, meet YMCA

Los Angeles school children appear at a YMCA press conference announcing a partnership with Cal State LA to improve college readiness in underserved areas of Los Angeles. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA
Los Angeles school children appear at a YMCA press conference announcing a partnership with Cal State LA to improve college readiness in underserved areas of Los Angeles. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA Cal State LA

I write this as the first flurry of acceptances have begun to reach hopeful applicants to our California State University campuses. These admission notifications represent the aspirations of thousands of prospective students who recognize the transformative power of a CSU degree.

We’re eager to welcome our new students in the fall. But there are still too many areas where students aren’t getting the support they need, early on, to take advantage of higher education. This is the case not only in parts of Los Angeles, where I work, but in underserved regions throughout California, which is why an initiative we’re trying might be of interest elsewhere in the state.

In the communities of Southeast Los Angeles County, the percentage of residents holding bachelor’s degrees is less than a quarter that of the county as a whole.

Recently, California State University, Los Angeles, became the first university in the nation to partner with the YMCA on an initiative to create a pathway to college to young students in underserved areas. The program, called Achieve LA, offers a model for collaboration between public universities and community organizations to encourage college readiness and support neighborhoods and families.

Students who participate, work hard and meet our university requirements will be guaranteed admission to Cal State LA. We, in turn, provide the mentoring and guidance necessary to ensure that children enrolled in YMCA programs in areas such as South L.A., Crenshaw, Southeast Los Angeles County and East L.A. are college ready.

That guidance will include tutoring, college admissions advisement and campus programs at Cal State LA for students and their parents. It’s a critical investment. In the communities of Southeast Los Angeles County along the central 710 corridor, for instance, the percentage of residents holding bachelor’s degrees is less than a quarter that of the county as a whole, according to a study commissioned by the California Community Foundation and the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA.

Yet there’s also reason for optimism – college enrollment among ages 18 to 24 in that part of the county increased by more than 7 percent from 2010 to 2014 and continues to rise.

In California’s public higher education system, we know how to make those degrees count. Cal State LA is number one in the nation for the upward mobility of our students, according to a first-of-its-kind study from the Equality of Opportunity Project. No other university does a better job of transforming low-income students into high-income earners.

And CSU degrees can be life changing. Take Capri Maddox. She came to our university at 17 years old, two tattered suitcases filled with her life’s belongings in tow. With little money and no steady place to live, Maddox had couch surfed for the previous two years in the homes of family friends, working part-time jobs to pay for essentials like toothpaste.

A Cal State LA diploma was the first rung on a ladder to a better life for Maddox. Now, two decades and multiple professional degrees later, she is a special assistant city attorney for the city of Los Angeles.

We want to make sure all students in our communities have a chance for success like Maddox’s. Education drives opportunity for the children in our communities, and by extension, the communities themselves. We’re not just transforming people, we’re transforming places.

As a university educator, I have witnessed how education can change the trajectory of a life. I have also lived it. Public low-income housing and support from committed teachers in public schools buoyed me to college at Cal Poly Pomona and a career in higher education.

Like Maddox, my road was not easy. I am grateful that the state and the CSU invested in me. It’s more important now than ever that we invest back in the CSU so we can continue to create escalators of opportunity for all Californians.

Jose A. Gomez is executive vice president and chief operating officer for California State University, Los Angeles. Reach him at jose.gomez@calstatela.edu.

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