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California’s San Bernardino and Riverside counties have a population of 4.6 million and the lowest academic attainment rate of any metropolitan area with more than 1 million people. Only 19 percent of adults over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Eighty percent of the students at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), where Tomás D. Morales serves as president, are the first in their family to earn a degree.
I have spent my entire career working with low-income students. The biggest challenge is to provide the leadership that creates institutions that are responsive to the unique needs of first-generation and low-income students. They often are underprepared academically, especially in math. We must ensure that they’re prepared when they enter college.
Since I came here in 2012, I’ve been driven by the desire to increase our graduation rates. One of the best ways to do that is to improve students’ math preparation and reduce the number who need remedial math classes, which don’t count toward graduation requirements. We know that students who start their freshman year not having to take remedial classes graduate at significantly higher rates—and they graduate more quickly—than students who have to take a math course that doesn’t count toward graduation.
We began an initiative working with 20 local school districts on improving college readiness and developing four-year math programs. And we encourage students to take four years of math in high school. We developed a data-driven approach to improve their math skills, which we call Coyote First STEP, for “Student Transition Enhancement Program.” STEP provides a summer bridge program. It’s a free, nationally recognized residential math immersion course. Math is like a language—if you don’t use it, you lose it. STEP gives them a refresher, and by the end of the program, many of the students move up a grade level in math skills, and others are ready to enroll in a first-year college math course.
By working with school districts to improve college readiness, we’ve increased our graduation rates during the past 10 years. When you look at higher education nationally, graduation rates for institutions like ours are low, but the good news is that ours are moving in the right direction.
This is a national challenge for us in higher education, particularly for those of us who serve low-income students. We have to narrow the achievement gap. Earning a degree not only helps our students improve their lives, it can have an effect on their siblings and others in the community. We feel that we’re not only transforming lives, but we’re transforming families—and we’re transforming communities.
As a TIAA client, I have been provided invaluable and sound financial advice. I have also had the honor to serve on the national TIAA Hispanic Advisory Council, which has provided me the opportunity to work with the Council on financial literacy and career opportunities for the community and CSUSB students.