THE BLOG

Public Higher Education -- The Great Equalizer

04/20/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Public higher education in the United States is under attack as never before. Some are questioning the value of the degrees we award. Some states are slashing public funding of higher education, with one governor even attempting to strip the sector of its mission of service. And some commentators have compared comprehensive regional public colleges and universities, like the ones I have led for 20 years, to middle children, with all the associated negative stereotypes.

I am proud to shine a light on the work that comprehensive regional publics perform and counter thoughtless metaphors intended to belittle our work. Our institutions aren't "middle children" less deserving of attention or funding. Instead, we are proudly serving, in the case of the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, more students than any other public four-year system of higher education in the nation.

Comprehensive regional publics are tremendous resources for our respective regions. Quite often, we are the only public four-year institutions serving a vast region. We tend to feature smaller class sizes, increased student/faculty interaction, robust opportunities for student involvement, and deep engagement with the communities we serve. And we remain among the most affordable public options for earning a four-year degree.

Our institutions pursue unique and vital missions that serve to educate rapidly growing sectors of our states' population, including working adults, veterans, and the educationally disadvantaged. Furthermore, the work performed on our campuses is done in close alignment with the needs of our communities and with a sharp eye on emerging workforce demands. The work we do raises educational attainment for entire populations and regions, creating stronger communities and economic futures.

Even as public investment in our institutions shrinks, there are those who criticize us for spending "needless dollars" on amenities and athletics. I'd remind them that a student center or a sports arena are more than just amenities -- they are also key parts of building community. Dozens of studies have shown that participation in sports fosters leadership skills, discipline and, yes, community. The strength of that community, the sense of belonging, are crucial pieces of the puzzle for retaining and graduating previously underrepresented and educationally at-risk students.

Further, why shouldn't students at comprehensive regional publics have the same opportunities for extracurricular engagement and success as their counterparts at private, research-focused and flagship public institutions? To only support our students' growth in the classroom denies them the opportunities and life lessons that students at our sister institutions are afforded. As leaders of institutions that give chances to students who want nothing more than to better their lives, my fellow presidents and I find ways to stretch our limited dollars to ensure our students have academic and personal opportunities to grow.

For example, at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), our veterans center provides a vital point of connection, community and support for our many military and veteran students. Our California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, the only one of its kind in the state, conducts cutting-edge research and is a focal point of support and success for American Indian students from the 18 tribal nations within our service area. And we have a center on campus focused on serving students who are former foster youth. Thoughtful resources like these can make a difference between an educationally at-risk student completing a degree ... or giving up.

At CSUSM, we unabashedly embrace our mission to raise the educational attainment levels of our diverse region, and we're succeeding. For the last two years, more than half of our graduating classes were made up of students who were the first in their families to earn a four-year degree. This becomes even more important when you consider that some 85 percent of our graduates remain in our region after graduation. Equipped with profession-ready skills, creative talents, global awareness and homegrown commitment, they become the workforce and leaders who help our region's economy and communities thrive.

All public institutions of higher learning are facing uncertain economic conditions and shrinking or unpredictable public investment. But regional publics are not taking the turmoil of reduced funding lying down. We are meeting this challenge with innovative programs that often don't rely on -- nor require -- state support.

My home institution offers a professional master's degrees in biotechnology, and we look forward to offering a first-of-its-kind professional master's degree in cybersecurity this fall. We're launching several certificate programs in business to give working adults the opportunity to hone skills or explore new directions. These certificates are stackable, allowing students to progress toward a master's degree should they choose to do so. We've also expanded the reach of our bachelor's of science in nursing program through partnerships with the healthcare industry and with the Cities of Temecula and Murrieta, so we can serve more students near their homes. Many of these programs do not rely on state funding. In fact, just since 2010, some 800 of our students have earned degrees -- and many more have participated in certificate courses or customized professional development training -- without any state support.

The great strength of American higher education is its diversity. Each sector plays a critical role in advancing the educational attainment of our communities, preparing a smart and adaptable workforce for an increasingly global economy, and equipping students with the ability and desire to engage deeply in the world around them. The comprehensive regional public sector is uniquely positioned to strengthen public higher education as, more than ever, the great equalizer.

But our work will be stymied if certain sectors of higher education are viewed as worthy targets of budget axes or reduced to silly caricatures. I'll remain focused on the goal I established for Cal State San Marcos when I assumed the presidency here just over 11 years ago: ensuring that anyone who has the drive and desire to attain a college degree in our region has a place at our institution.