COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DICK DANIELS

Cal State San Marcos becoming ‘first-class innovator’

California State University San Marcos celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, but the North County institution isn’t waiting until then to boast its accomplishments since opening its doors to 600 students in a furniture store annex.

More than 500 business, civic and institutional leaders from North County and beyond gathered earlier this month for an early-morning breakfast meeting in a large tented forum on the 304-acre hillside campus to hear university President Karen Haynes report the soaring progress the university has made in just the past 10 years, which coincides with her arrival as the university’s third president.

In a decade filled with state funding cuts of unprecedented proportion, CSUSM has not only weathered the worst economic climate for public education, but has actually prospered. Since 2004, the university’s enrollment has doubled from 6,000 to 12,000.

During that period, construction cranes have been continual fixtures on campus, resulting in 10 buildings that double the number of a decade ago. The latest facility, which opened a few weeks ago, is the soul of the campus — the stylish 89,000-square-foot University Student Union.

Likewise, the number of academic offerings has doubled the past decade, from 27 to 58 majors and programs. The university opened a Temecula satellite campus that now needs to be expanded to accommodate growing demand for its bachelor’s and master’s degrees and professional certificate programs.

But Haynes focused her attention that morning beyond bricks and mortar and academic programs to the university’s impact on the people it serves. With 1,900 faculty, staff, and employees, CSUSM serves a diverse student body, nearly two-thirds of whom are non-Anglo. Some 11 percent are veterans, active-duty personnel and military dependents. In fact, CSUSM is ranked among the top 15 percent of colleges and universities nationally for veterans’ education.

The university has taken innovative approaches to reach the overlooked and underserved populations in the region. Today, the university has 12 guaranteed-admission programs with school districts, community colleges, academies, agencies and American Indian organizations throughout the region.

Linked with various financial aid components, these programs have not only opened access to students who otherwise would be unable to attend, but they are also beginning to improve students’ academic preparedness.

In 2012, nearly six out of 10 arriving students needed to take remedial classes to prepare them to master college-level work. Last fall, that number dropped to just under five out of 10. Students take accelerated remediation courses to get them academically up to speed academically as soon as possible.

The result clearly indicates the program has had a big impact on improving access. Three months from now, one out of two graduating seniors will become the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

To further successful outcomes for new students, a recent grant from the Price Family Charitable Foundation has funded an alliance to focus on creating a seamless transition for students as they finish high school and enter college, thereby preparing them to succeed and graduate.

One student population group largely ignored elsewhere has been homeless and foster youth. CSUSM educates more former foster youth per capita than any other U.S. college or university. That group includes the current Associated Students president, Matt Walsh.

The outreach extends to the region’s American Indian population, resulting in CSUSM having the fastest-growing Indian student population of all 23 CSU campuses.

In terms of its programs, last year, the university opened the CSU systemwide Institute for Palliative Care as the first statewide educational and workforce development initiative focused on the care needed to prevent or relieve the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness. The CSUSM-based institute is now being replicated on other state campuses.

While San Marcos and the other CSU campuses depend largely on taxpayer support, the university’s successes in recent years have been largely due to finding alternative funding sources for its nursing program, Temecula satellite campus, and other initiatives.

Haynes has long been plainspoken about the need for her university to no longer depend solely on former state funding levels and to pursue partnerships with public and private entities to expand educational programs and access.

The results have paid massive dividends to the region’s workforce. Nearly nine out of 10 of its 30,000 alumni have remained in the university’s service area, generally defined as north of Highway 56, including south Orange County and southwest Riverside County. That number will continue to rise, given the increasing interest in the university on the part of prospective students.

Nobody could have predicted the innovative paths taken this past decade by CSUSM when the late State Sen. Bill Craven and others began to envision three decades ago the need for a basic four-year institution. By all accounts, though, such innovations are far from over.

“If I have a goal,” Haynes told the audience, “it would be to keep pushing us in breaking through barriers and being a first-class innovator.”

Major innovations in a public institution? Clearly, the combination works here.

Daniels is a North County Realtor, public relations consultant and former Escondido city councilman.

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