Public Higher Education is California’s Engine of Social Mobility

610 200 Janet Napolitano, UC President

(Photo Credit: John Loo/Flickr)

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California system of 10 campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories and a statewide division of agriculture and natural resources. What follows are her thoughts on what the UC System is doing to ensuring millions of Californians can have a path to the middle class.

California is in growth mode. Many cities and towns have bounced back from the Great Recession and companies across the state have grown and added new jobs. Much like the days of the Gold Rush, people from around the world are heading to California in search of opportunity afforded by the world’s sixth largest economy.

But this success story has another chapter that reveals an alarming reality.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 20 percent of Californians – roughly eight million people – live in poverty. That’s the highest poverty rate in the country. Addressing this shortcoming is not only a moral imperative, but it is critical to sustaining the state’s economic prosperity.

There is no quick or easy fix for this problem. But a long-term and equitable solution will surely include California’s public higher education system.

The facts are irrefutable: Those with a college education earn roughly 98 percent more per hour than those with only a high school diploma. Over the course of a college graduate’s career, they will earn, on average, $1 million more than someone with only a high school diploma.

For nearly 150 years, UC has served as an engine of economic mobility for Californians, opening our doors to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The university currently educates more than 270,000 students and has 1.8 million living alumni. Thirty-eight percent of all UC undergraduates are eligible to receive federal Pell grants, offered to students from families with annual incomes of less than $50,000. And, this fall, an estimated 45 percent of UC’s California freshmen — about 16,500 students — are the first generation in their families to attend a four-year university.

Across the UC system, some 90,000 undergraduates are first-generation college students – more than any other research university in the nation. And first-generation students who entered UC between 2005 and 2014 surpassed their parents’ median household income just six years after earning their degrees.

One of these graduates is a young man named David Do. David is the child of refugees from the Vietnam War and grew up in San Jose, California. His parents did not speak English and worked in fast food restaurants to make ends meet. After graduating high school, David enrolled at UC Merced, where he struggled initially. On the verge of dropping out, he found a mentor in his freshman economics professor, which David calls “a turning point in my life.” Bolstered by the knowledge that a community stood in his corner, David thrived during his remaining time at UC Merced. Like many UC graduates across the nation, he’s embarked on a career in public service and now serves as Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Director of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.

When undergraduates like David arrive on our campuses, we know they may need special support. We do everything we can to make sure they succeed and earn a college degree. UC’s recent spotlight on first-generation student success is the latest example of these efforts.

A first-generation student doesn’t necessarily have a road map for college success. They may not know which classes to take, or how to land a research position in a professor’s laboratory, or who to turn to when they struggle academically.

To bridge this gap, UC developed a network of mentors and advisors made up of nearly 900 faculty members and staff across the university’s 10 campuses who were themselves first-generation college graduates. They stand ready to advise and mentor first-generation students as they traverse uncharted waters. During the first week of classes, these faculty and staff proudly wore T-shirts and pins, identifying themselves as first-generation college graduates, boosting new students’ sense of belonging, and declaring their willingness to serve as mentors.

In addition, campuses are putting their own touches on efforts to support first-generation students. UCLA dedicated a residence hall floor for first-generation students. UC Irvine launched the First Generation, First Quarter Challenge, which pairs incoming first-generation students with first-generation upperclassmen mentors for a 10-week program focused on navigating college life. In both instances, and in similar programs across the UC system, students, faculty and staff are enthusiastically participating.

The message to UC’s first-generation students is simple: you belong here, and you are not alone.

A college education is a proven bridge to the middle class. At a time of growing economic inequality, California’s public colleges and universities can be part of the solution by driving social and economic mobility across California and the nation. To sustain California’s growth and prosperity, we must open the doors of opportunity to a higher education even wider to all Californians, today and in the future.

President Napolitano joins other California higher education leaders in discussing the importance that higher education plays in addressing upward mobility and preparing the state's for workforce.

For CSU Chancellor Timothy White's thoughts, click here.

For California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley's thoughts, click here.

Elevate CA is a conversation started by the California Economic Summit to develop a policy agenda that can address the upward mobility issue facing the 18-million Californians who live in or near poverty.


Janet Napolitano, UC President

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