THE BLOG
09/16/2015 05:03 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2016

Higher Education Can Make a Deeper Difference: Supporting the College Dream for All Students

Every day on my campus, I encounter and interact with students who at one time thought, or perhaps were told, that college was not a place for them. Unfortunately, too many students with the ability to succeed in college have the same experience. They are ethnic minorities, including Native Americans. They are former foster youth. They are veterans. Often, they are from low-income households. And they are, more often than not, the first members of their families to pursue a four-year college degree.

Shortly after becoming president of California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) 12 years ago, I set out to eliminate the perception that certain students don't belong in higher education and to remove barriers blocking them from the opportunity. What could one of the youngest regional comprehensive public universities in the nation--we're 25 this year--do to change things? It turns out, quite a lot.

Collectively, these students are referred to as "traditionally underrepresented." But each one has a personal story of grit and determination, of intellect and creativity, and of daunting obstacles overcome. At CSUSM, we believe that anyone who has the drive and desire to attain a college degree in our region should have the opportunity to do so. So I established a bold goal for our university--that we would raise the educational attainment rate of our entire region. And we would do so by creating a supportive environment for traditionally underrepresented students, while transforming our student body to reflect the rich diversity of the region we proudly serve.

It has been hard work. It has required intentional planning, strategic execution, and sustained allocation of resources, even in challenging economic times. But our youth as an institution makes us nimble, since we don't have years of history and tradition to constrain our vision and future. And this has allowed us to focus on what truly matters--meeting the individual needs of our students, regardless of where they come from or what they need to succeed.

One way we do so is through innovative programs like our guaranteed admission agreements with 10 local school districts. These agreements provide support and guidance to students and their families to create a college-bound culture for some 200,000 students across our region. We are the only university in our state with partnerships of this magnitude. Our data indicates that, because we reach back into the K-12 school community well before senior year, these students come to us with higher high school GPAs, better standardized test scores, and without the need for remediation. They also graduate more quickly than those who do not come to us through the partnerships.

As shameful as it is, former foster youth are among the most marginalized sectors of the American population--and they are among the most at-risk in terms of achieving college success. With our ACE Scholars Services program, we are intent on turning that around by helping our scholars make the transition from being cared for to caring for themselves. Services specifically tailored to the needs of our ACE Scholars include personalized assistance with financial aid and scholarship applications; academic, career and personal counseling; faculty mentoring; and year-round on-campus housing, emergency financial assistance and personal development training. The results? We now serve more former foster youth per capita than any other university in the nation, and we retain these students at 88 percent--nearly 30 points higher than the national average.

Turning to another non-traditional, underrepresented student population, we are committed to serving those who have served our nation. San Diego County is home to more active duty service members transitioning out of the military than anywhere else in the U.S.--some 15,000 per year. And it is the number one destination for service members and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

To meet the specialized needs of returning service members and their families, I hired a full-time veterans services director with past experience as an active-duty naval officer. And we established a Veterans Center as a welcoming place for these students to build community, study and access the variety of resources we offer, like tutors, study skills workshops, focused-learning communities, priority registration, a 'War at Home and Abroad' digital history archive, veteran-specific scholarships and more. Our commitment to them is hitting the mark--currently 11 percent of our students are military-affiliated, the highest per capita of any university in the 23-campus CSU system. It's worth noting that these students remain at our university with a 90 percent second-year continuation rate and have GPAs 20 percent higher than the national average.

Why do it we do it? And why do I believe regional public universities like ours are perfectly suited to serve traditionally underrepresented student populations? Because no other sector of four-year higher education in this country is stepping up to the plate. Not elite private universities. Not large research universities. Not expensive for-profits. So, if not us, then who?

At a time when a college education is too often seen as a private good--and many are wondering what is "public" about public institutions anymore--CSUSM is showing another way. We are showing how public higher education can make a deeper difference by being a place for those who were told "not for you." By educating underrepresented students from our region who want nothing more than a chance to pursue their dreams, we are transforming lives, bettering families, powering the regional economy ... and strengthening our communities for a more hopeful future.