Last week, a highly anticipated report was released by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) that was supposed to be the first concrete step towards a four-year university in Stockton, the largest city in the state without one. The study was spearheaded by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman who has become a champion for bringing a state institution to our city. Local advocates began to dream about an ideal location for a new campus, and I even mused about the same topic in this post.
The LAO, on the other hand, turned out to have other ideas. The report published last week concluded that a new CSU or UC campus was not needed, delivering a gut check to proponents of a Stockton campus. It turns out, according to the LAO, that there’s plenty of space available at existing campuses statewide to meet student demand for the next ten years.
At first glance, the LAO conclusions might appear to be a death kneel to our CSU Stockton dreams. But there is an important caveat I think most people don’t realize: the LAO does not decide on whether or not to build new campuses, and their conclusions—while technically correct—do not account for several factors that overwhelmingly support the creation of a new CSU here in Stockton.
The big reason why we should not take the LAO conclusions seriously? Because they only examined one thing: capacity.
The LAO conclusion that no new CSU/UC campuses are necessary is based solely on the fact that existing universities have the ability to absorb new student demand for the next ten years. Not a peep about the lower levels of college and post grad degree holders in our region, the economic impacts experienced by the communities that host these campuses, or that Stockton is the largest city by far without a campus. The question should not have been whether or not the state should build a new university anywhere, but whether Stockton deserves its own university or not.
To be fair, the LAO did exactly what was asked of them in this report, which was to assess enrollment demand and campus capacity. This is according to the authorizing legislation (which can be found on page 25 of the report). And it’s technically true: there’s enough excess capacity or expansion potential at each state university that we do not need another campus anywhere in the state to accommodate the number of students who would like to attend a UC or CSU.
But this conclusion skips several important questions that should be answered, specifically, is the Stockton metro area served well enough by existing CSU or UC facilities? And by this, I do not mean “can everyone graduating high school or transferring from Stockton fit at CSU Stanislaus?” but, rather, “is the area served at the same level as other regions in our state that currently enjoy the presence of a public university?” The answer to this question is clearly “no.”
To say Stockton is adequately served by CSU Stanislaus—which is what the report essentially concludes—is like saying that South Stockton is adequately served by Lodi Unified. That is to say, just because something is close by doesn’t mean it serves the region’s needs. There is no economic benefit provided to Stockton when students locally decide to go to CSU Stanislaus or Sacramento State. Students must commute to these campuses, spend money in these cities, and many times are lured to other regions upon graduation. Their faculties don’t live in Stockton, and we derive no cultural or communal benefits from the presence of these institutions. In these terms, there is no UC/CSU campus that provides Stockton with any benefits.
Another issue I have with the LAO study is that in the author’s eyes, all of these campuses are interchangeable. This is a big oversight, ignoring the workforce needs of each region. Assemblywoman Eggman has stated that a Stockton campus could be a “Cal Poly” type of university that provides a focus on engineering and sciences. Professionals in these more technical fields of study are in much shorter supply in the Central Valley, and the presence of a Cal Poly Stockton would go a long ways towards both correcting this imbalance and offering local students an opportunity to pursue these disciplines within their own community. Not to mention, programs at this campus could be tailored to other areas of need for our region like health care.
With regards to students, the report does provide one very important data point that advocates should use in their argument: the presence of CSU campuses dramatically increases CSU enrollment in other Central Valley counties. According to the LAO findings, Fresno County had 20% of its high school graduates enrolling at a CSU, the second highest percentage in the state behind only San Francisco at 21%. Stanislaus County ranks fifth at 16%, and Kern County (home to Bakersfield) is twelfth on the list, meeting the statewide average at 14%. San Joaquin County is at 11%. The difference here is that Fresno, Turlock, and Bakersfield have a CSU campus, while Stockton does not. Given this information, it is reasonable to conclude that bringing a CSU to Stockton would significantly increase college enrollment of our high school graduates, a very important goal for a region that struggles with educational attainment.
All of this begs the question: why wasn’t the LAO directed to look at Stockton and its needs specifically? My guess is that Assemblywoman Eggman needed support for the legislation to authorize the study, and in order to get that, the legislation had to be broad and not specific to Stockton. Had the study came back concluding that a new campus was necessary, that would have given the Assemblywoman more firepower—along with the other topics mentioned here– in advocating for the campus to be in Stockton.
At the end of the day, the LAO conclusions are not binding. I worked for the federal counterpart to the LAO (the Government Accountability Office) for three years in Washington DC, and if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that politicians ignore the results of these kinds of reports routinely. It’s up to the political will of our local elected officials to continue to push for a campus. Thankfully, I do believe we have strong leadership that can get the job done, one LAO report isn’t going to stop them.