Growing up in a farm labor camp in eastern Merced County, I couldn’t wait to attend school. As I listened in wonder to my older brother and sister about their days in the classroom, I could only imagine what it would be like.
My mother had purchased a set of Child Craft books from a traveling salesman. These books introduced me to “The Little Mermaid” and other stories that took my brothers, sisters and me away from the labor camp to exotic and faraway places. Though I couldn’t yet read, my mother and older sister read all of the stories to me and my younger siblings until the pages were worn and tattered.
As a longtime educator in the Central Valley, I have been waiting for the coming of the University of California at Merced with the same excitement I felt as I waited for my sister and brother to come home from school, wondering what new adventures they would share. I imagine there are thousands of Central Valley students who anticipate attending the new university with the same sense of wonder and excitement that I experienced.
One of the most compelling arguments for bringing the UC to the Central Valley was the access it provides for valley students.
Historically, valley students attend UCs at almost half the rate of the rest of California’s student populations. According to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, about 7.7 percent of California high school graduates attend UC while valley students attend at a rate of almost 3.5 percent. Data from the Public Policy Institute of California, which includes community college transfers, supports these findings.
The data also reveals the percentage of incoming students from the Central Valley who gained a bachelor’s degree from UC was lower than the percentage of students who entered the system from schools outside the valley.
Given these facts, it is disappointing that in the inaugural class of UC Merced, only 33 percent of the first cohort of students is from the Central Valley. This number is troubling in light of the efforts by UC staff and valley educators to attract our students to the new campus.
In addition to the disappointing number of valley residents in the first class at UC Merced, attendance at the three CSU campuses in the valley also seriously lags the rest of the state.
Though the initial local enrollment at UC Merced does not measure up to the number many of us were hoping for, the argument of access is more valid now than ever. The college-going age group in the valley will increase at a greater rate than the rest of the population in years to come. A more youthful population will look for seats at UC Merced, the California State Universities in Fresno, Turlock and Bakersfield and the nine community colleges from Stockton to Bakersfield.
The challenge, then, is for higher education institutions to partner with others in the valley to create a college-going culture. This effort is essential to the long-term economic and sociological health of the valley. The “College Next” campaign initiated by the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium is a good start. The consortium, composed of higher education institutions from Bakersfield to Stockton, launched the campaign in recognition of the historically low college-going rates of the Central Valley. The campaign is designed to create an environment where students will ponder where to attend college, not whether to attend at all.
This will require a grass-roots approach to find students (and their parents) of underrepresented groups through non-traditional methods. The same methods cannot be used to reach Latino, African-American or Southeast Asian families.
As institutions of higher education, we should engage the faith-based community in addition to those civic organizations that underrepresented groups trust for information and support. Additionally, a campaign to attract and retain students who are leaving the valley for UCs in other parts of the state should be initiated. Let’s keep our best and brightest home when we can.
Also promising is an emerging campaign between the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium and the California Student Aid Commission in its annual effort to increase the number of students who take advantage of the financial resources provided by the commission for Californians.
It is time to create a place where those who dream of going to college can do so and those who have not dared such a dream are invited into the circle. Dreams that come true can be powerful things.
Duran, Ed.D., is president of Merced College.