There should be a community parade to honor Fresno State for its No. 1 national ranking for “graduation rate performance” from U.S. News and World Report.
Fresno, after all, loves to reward athletic accomplishments. There were parades for the university’s national championship baseball (2008) and softball teams (1998), thousands of fans greeted the 1983 NIT basketball champions at the airport and followed them to campus in an impromptu parade, and Highway 99 was crammed with red-flag waving and horn-honking fans after the Bulldogs’ Freedom Bowl victory over USC (1992).
So why not publicly acknowledge academic accomplishments in a big way, too?
The answer is, we don’t. And it’s not just us here in Fresno, it’s that way everywhere. Academic accomplishments don’t provide the emotional rush long ago captured in the phrase “thrill of victory.”
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So we’re going to throw our own parade for Fresno State on this page.
One reason is because this No. 1 ranking signifies that Fresno State, under fourth-year President Joseph Castro, is rewriting expectations for first-generation college students, many of whom are poor and come from immigrant families. By graduating nearly 60 percent of students, Fresno State is outperforming its expected graduation rate, which is set based on factors such as the number of students receiving federal aid and spending per student.
Another and perhaps more important reason is that the higher Fresno State’s graduation rate climbs, the more Fresno and other Valley cities will prosper. Investment goes where there is a highly educated and skilled workforce; indeed, the lack of such has kept the brakes on our regional economy.
Finally, this is both a defining accomplishment, with the potential to elevate the Valley for many years to come, and a clear sign that Castro’s leadership style – built on a foundation of community engagement, collaboration and empathy – is working in a region where leaders often rely on force of personality or old-fashioned, poke-in-the-eye power politics.
The Valley is no longer an underpopulated, largely rural, drive-through region. It is inhabited by millions of people, and indications are that it will be California’s next big growth area. Its population is diverse and its needs are many. Politics, as practiced in the past, likely won’t cut it – at the ballot box or in the effort to move the Valley forward.
We especially like three of Castro’s marquee strategies.
He ended the academics vs. athletics argument that had divided the campus by stating both would “rise together.” Academics should be a university’s first mission. But large universities also invest in first-class athletic programs. They provide a total college experience for students, market the school outside of the region and provide entertainment for the community.
There is STEAM, which stands for science, technology, education, agriculture and math. He identified these as key subject areas (and the foundation of the Valley’s economic future) and then backed that up by hiring tenure-track professors.
And there is the student cupboard, which is helping students who don’t have enough to eat stay healthy and stay in school.
Fresno State has benefited from California’s economic recovery and the attention it has received from Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders. The budget is growing, professors are being hired, grants are being landed, and morale is up.
This attention is well-deserved. Fresno State is showing the world how to engage, support, educate and graduate thousands of young people who otherwise might not attend college. Its success reflects a big commitment to education from everyone at the university.