Turlock university ranks with Ivy League in moving students up and onward

California State University, Stanislaus, was named fifth in a national study of colleges focused on upward mobility. The top five were Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UC Irvine and Stanislaus State.
California State University, Stanislaus, was named fifth in a national study of colleges focused on upward mobility. The top five were Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UC Irvine and Stanislaus State. naustin@modbee.com

What do Harvard, Stanford and California State University, Stanislaus, have in common? They are tops in the nation for increasing students’ upward mobility, according to an academic study commissioned by National Public Radio.

Researcher Amy Laitinen was as surprised as anyone when the Central Valley campus popped up in such heady company.

“Honestly, I didn’t have a clue about Stanislaus,” Laitinen says in a Stanislaus State communications article. “The dominant narrative in the majority of these studies is about the Ivys and the few elite publics. But some of these smaller public schools are doing incredible jobs. Here’s one just 90 miles away from where I went to grad school (UC Berkeley) and I had no idea it was there.”

Laitinen, director for higher education at the nonprofit New America, was one of three researchers contacted by NPR’s Planet Money segment on rating colleges. All three used data from the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, tracking 1,730 variables at more than 7,000 schools.

One ranked universities by highest-earning grads – Harvard and Stanford again, no Stanislaus State. Another scored schools on making financial sense, looking at debt vs. earnings – Duke University topped that list.

Laitinen’s mobility ranking, as described by NPR, looked at how well schools offer students from less well-off backgrounds a shot at a good education.

Are we taking kids already standing on third base and helping them get home, or are we taking first-gen students and changing the trajectory of their entire lives, and their families’? That’s what stokes me.

Stanislaus State associate vice president

And the upward mobility winners are … virtual drum roll here:

1. Harvard University

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

3. Stanford University

4. University of California, Irvine

5. California State University, Stanislaus

A finger running down the list will pass Princeton University, Columbia University and several more UCs among the remaining, lower-ranked 10.

Her methodology, as adopted and processed by NPR, gave equal weight to six areas: percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, net price for families making less than $48,000, percentage of first-generation college students, default rates, on-time graduation rates and median income 10 years after entry.

“I’m glad this didn’t turn out to be another list with just the Harvards, MITs and Stanfords, because those schools by comparison don’t serve a lot of low-income students,” Laitinen said. “They take a lot of students who are well-off by accident of birth, and it’s easy to take folks who are primed to succeed by virtue of wealth and move them along. It’s not so easy to take kids from poorer backgrounds and help them attain the tools to succeed.”

At Stanislaus State, 87 percent of full-time, first-time freshmen continue on to sophomore year.

First-generation college student Prince Carnecer is one of those kids. He grew up in the Philippines, one of five children raised by a single father before moving to Stockton. This fall he started his second semester in the nursing program with financial help from a Mary Stuart Rogers Scholarship and a faculty mentor, part of a Stanislaus State program for at-risk students.

But he chose Stanislaus State more for its success rate than its support programs. “It had a lot of good stuff, good passing rates for the (national nursing exam). I checked all that out,” Carnecer said. He has volunteered at homeless shelters and Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock.

Venus Lopez, another of the 17 Rogers Scholarship winners and also a first-generation college student, said she chose the Turlock campus because it was close to her family in Ceres. She commutes to school, and transferred in as a junior from Modesto Junior College. She expects to finish with a bachelor’s degree in business, a minor in psychology and less than $15,000 in student loans.

A school entrepreneurs club helped her define what she wanted in a business career, bringing her to focus on organizational behavior.

The dominant narrative in the majority of these studies is about the Ivys and the few elite publics. But some of these smaller public schools are doing incredible jobs.

Amy Laitinen, New American

Both said they have friends being helped by the school’s Program for Academic and Career Excellence, better known as PACE. The federal grant-funded program serves 600 students this year, most Latino and the first in their families to go to college. It offers help from an available printer to more intense advising and career guidance, but a student survey shows perhaps its most important component is bringing students with similar challenges together.

“As someone who had no clue what to expect from college and nobody who could guide me since I am first generation, I think it was the best thing to find a support system with friends who were in the same boat,” said student Sandra Loza.

PACE is a federal grant program that will end after this school year, but Stanislaus State will incorporate its most successful components, said CSU Stanislaus spokesman Tim Lynch. An advisory task force is working on ways to create a homegrown version of PACE and reach beyond the 120 students per cohort it serves now, Lynch said.

One of those supports is a two-semester English class the students take as a group. “As a cohort they get that support, that continuity – that will continue on beyond the sunsetting of PACE,” said Lynch, a first-generation student himself who felt “like a fish out of water” when he started college.

“I’m highly confident the excellent (practices) will become part of the DNA of advising on this campus,” he said.

Stanislaus State President Joseph Sheley often speaks of the Turlock university’s commitment to its first-generation and Latino students. “How do we make sure we’ve given them that insider piece of information that means they’re going to succeed?” he asked at a joint announcement in June about the university partnering with high schools and MJC to help ease the transition to and through college.

More than half of the incoming freshmen in 2015 are Latinos.

Sheley also spearheaded the Greatness Relies on Writing, or GROW, program, a resource aimed at promoting strong student writing as a way to further academic success.

The campus just wrapped up its second year all-hands-on-deck fundraising push, the One Purpose campaign, that raised more than $400,000 for scholarships based on academic promise.

“We know that this region needs more college graduates, and One Purpose is a way to make that happen,” said Oddmund Myhre, dean of the College of Education, Kinesiology and Social Work. “I feel we are part of building a community as much as we are about supporting students.”

The combination of practical student supports, including financial aid, seems to be working.

“It looks like – by these measures – Stanislaus is doing well, and that’s something to be proud of,” Laitinen said.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin