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Access to College: A Promise to Keep

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I am no preacher. But this month I will stand at a church pulpit, before thousands of families and students with the message: college can transform a person's life.

Finding the pathway to college can be tough. That’s why students stand a better chance when parents and family members help them in the planning for university admission. This planning must start as early as middle school. At this early state, students should enroll in challenging classes that prepare them for college.

This message will echo in 100 predominantly African American churches in almost 40 California cities over the course of several Sundays. It will be delivered by university presidents, members of the board of trustees, the chancellor and other speakers from the California State University’s 23 campuses.

We will be enlisting the support of entire communities to help us get students on track, prepared to enter and succeed in college. Accompanying us will be admissions counselors and others who will help explain the steps necessary to get into a CSU campus.

This outreach effort, called Super Sunday, is no small task. It depends on a dedicated core of staff and volunteers, both from the university and our church partners. Begun five years ago in two dozen churches, it is the most prominent part of the CSU’s broader African American Initiative.

As the initiative reaches out, the community is responding. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of African American students applying for freshman admission at CSU campuses increased 78 percent; and undergraduate enrollment by African American students increased 20 percent.

These are important measures and motivators. But look beyond the numbers.

Consider the individual students whose lives are being changed by their CSU education. I take heart in the story of Tanisha Washington, a CSU Long Beach student. After her father's sudden death, Tanisha, her two siblings and disabled mother lived in poverty. For a time they lived on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

In 2009, Tanisha received a highly competitive CSU Hearst/Trustees' scholarship.

She now uses her life experience and education to help the visually impaired individuals and children living in poverty. She, too, will be one of the CSU’s Super Sunday messengers.

Tanisha demonstrates the power of access to public higher education – what happens when people are given the opportunity and tools to make a difference.

How far she has come is a measure of how far we have come. Fifty years ago California, with its Master Plan for Higher Education, began a revolutionary notion: to make quality higher education affordable and accessible to all Californians. The progress and prosperity created by that framework have transformed our society in truly amazing ways, fostering upward mobility for generations who might formerly been left behind. Yet, recent economic challenges demonstrate how vulnerable that framework may be.

The CSU African America Initiative is working to keep it strong. In addition to Super Sunday, the ongoing initiative includes Summer Algebra Institutes, Train the Trainer workshops, and Super Saturday education fairs. It continues to seek new ways to educate youth and parents about the value of a college degree and the steps to get to college. (More information is online at http://www.calstate.edu/supersunday.)

Recently, the CSU also launched a bold plan to increase graduation rates at all of its campuses, with a particular focus on clearing hurdles faced by minority and low income students on the path toward graduation. In doing so, the CSU will continue to confront the so-called achievement gap between groups of students and to seek ways to close it.

It further underscores the CSU’s firm commitment to the communities of California: to stand with you, as your university, to meet the needs of present and future generations, and to help students plan ahead for higher education. It is a promise we will make from 100 pulpits throughout Super Sunday. We know that – with the help of parents, pastors, coaches, teachers, tutors, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors—it is a promise we can keep.

Dr. Anthony Ross is Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. He is also sy stemwide coordinator for the California State University's African American Initiative.

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