California has a big budget surplus. It’s time to boost Fresno State’s enrollment numbers

Fresno State is coming off a stellar year. For starters, the university just graduated 6,200 students — a record number. Many of the graduates will find new jobs in the Valley; key fields are agriculture, business and teaching.

And who can forget the outstanding seasons of the football, men’s basketball and baseball teams? The Bulldogs football team won the Mountain West Conference title, took the Las Vegas Bowl, captured 12 wins for the first time and finished ranked 18th in the nation; basketball won 23 games in its new coach’s first year; and baseball just won the conference title and opens NCAA regional play at Stanford on Friday.

But behind the great news is a sobering reality. For this fall Fresno State received 25,000 freshmen and transfer student applications. But the university had to turn away 8,600 eligible students, which represents a third of all the eligible students who were denied by the 23-campus CSU system.

Of those 8,600 denied admission, 3,276 were from the region Fresno State is designed to chiefly serve — Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.

Fresno State students are unlike their CSU peers in key ways. Ninety percent of those enrolled come from the Valley. Fresno State President Joseph Castro calls them “place committed,” as many of them live at home to save expenses or have jobs that help their families make ends meet. This is why a Valley student who meets eligibility requirements but gets denied entry cannot easily attend a different CSU campus.

Seventy percent of Fresno State students are the first in their families to go to college, and many of them rely on financial aid to attend the university. Eighty percent remain in the Valley once they graduate.

Of the 23 campuses in the CSU, six are fully impacted. Fresno State is one of them (the others are Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego State and San Jose State). This is despite the fact that Fresno State has seen the grade-point average of transfer students entering the university jump from 2.0 six years ago to 2.9 this year.

The solution, as is often the case, is money. If Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders can agree to increase CSU enrollment by 5 percent, Fresno State could accept 1,000 more students. To do that would require spending $154.7 million across the CSU. The governor has proposed hiking enrollment by 2 percent, at a cost of $62 million.

For a state that has a projected budget surplus of $21 billion, the investment required to increase the CSU’s enrollment is small, but the payoff is big. As Castro notes, many of Fresno State’s graduates land jobs in farming, and their innovations help food production that benefits people not just in California, but around the world.

When Newsom gave his State of the State address to the Legislature earlier this year, he noted how he plans to focus on helping the Central Valley, a region the governor said is too often overlooked by those living on the coast.

“If he wants to improve the medium and long-term prospects of this region,” Castro said, “one of the best returns on investment would be in enrollment growth.”

Newsom must urgently bring his power of persuasion to bear with legislative budget committee leaders now, as final details of the new spending plan are being worked out.

Area residents can also contact key legislators. One of them is state Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican who represents the 4th District, located in the Sacramento Valley. He is a Fresno State graduate and is vice chair of the Senate’s budget committee.

Local legislators can also be contacted and asked to help lobby on behalf of Fresno State. In the Assembly, Republican Jim Patterson and Democrat Joaquin Arrambula; in the Senate, Republican Andreas Borgeas and Democrat Melissa Hurtado.

There is no question much of the economic success of the Valley is linked to the training and skills developed by Fresno State. To help that go further, the rather modest enrollment spending increase makes sense. If Newsom and legislative leaders want to really make am impact on the Valley, here’s their chance.