Commencement season is a time of celebration across California. Sacramento State sent off a record 6,600 graduates into the wider world. At my campus, Cal State LA, we awarded 6,000 degrees. In all, the California State University system will graduate more than 110,000 students this year.
As CSU closes one chapter, we look to the next. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have reached a tentative budget agreement that provides an additional $105 million in ongoing general fund support and $167 million in one-time money. The deal, which goes further than the governor’s proposal in May, will enable the CSU to modestly boost new enrollment and hire faculty. We can’t rest until the budget is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
While the budget debate has focused on taxpayer dollars that augment revenue from student tuition, we need to focus on the return on the state’s investment – our students.
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I am thinking of new graduates such as Anthony Robles, who hails from La Puente, a working-class town where parents dream of their children attending college. Robles overcame more than his share of challenges. His mother battled cancer. His father was an immigrant who worked in a warehouse. Robles, himself, had youthful run-ins with the police, including an arrest. Determined to turn his life around, he attended Rio Hondo College in Whittier before enrolling at Cal State LA in 2016. He was a vital leader of Project Rebound, which supports formerly incarcerated students. He was also active off campus, volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
Last fall, Robles was among 23 students to receive the CSU system’s highest award for student achievement. He graduated summa cum laude, the first person from his family to earn a university degree.
When I consider his accomplishments, I think, too, of another first-generation college student from La Puente who found a nurturing academic home in the CSU system: me. My bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona served as my bridge from humble beginnings to a Ph.D. and then a career in government and now academia.
That’s what I mean by return on investment. Sacramento State, Cal State LA and the other 21 CSU campuses rank in the top one-fourth of U.S. colleges and universities in the upward social mobility of their students. A 2017 study found that CSU campuses were among the very best (with Cal State LA at No. 1) at turning the lowest-income students into eventual high- income earners.
As the CSU seeks to double its four-year graduation rate in nine years and deliver an additional 500,000 graduates by 2025, now is the time for California to keep investing in our system. Tens of thousands of students like Robles, from cities and towns like La Puente, are counting on the budget agreement. As generations of CSU graduates have proved, that investment is one of the wisest that our state can make.
Jose A. Gomez is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Cal State LA. He can be contacted at email@example.com.