Brain drain

Photo illustration for Michael Uribes

For the past 30 years, Fresno State has been on a public service mission to diversify the campus.

It wasn’t Fresno State’s prerogative. The California State University (CSU) system gave each university the same goal.

The CSU system advocates campus diversification in which each university is a microcosm of its geographical area. In Fresno State’s case, that means the Central Valley.

To accomplish the goal, Fresno State has taken to accepting thousands more students from the Fresno County area. Many of the students accepted have come from blue-collar families. Many have been first-generation college students from Latino and Asian backgrounds.

In the process, Fresno State, once a predominantly white school, became multicultural.

Bernie Vinovrski, vice president for Enrollment Services at Fresno State, has seen the shift in demographics and academics.

“We don’t know if [the incoming classes are] more qualified,” Vinovrski said. “There are more students that check off multicultural. It’s a phenomenon that’s [been] happening here.”

Unfortunately for the university, a side effect of mass acceptance emerged.

The image of Fresno State from the point of view of prospective students plummeted. Students left the Fresno area for other institutions, without even considering Fresno State.

The shift has a name. The brain drain.

According to the Institutional Research and Planning department at Fresno State, SAT scores have flat lined at Fresno State. Unlike most other CSU campuses, such as Bakersfield and San Jose State, average SAT scores at Fresno State have not risen.

Finally, after years of a dormant academic reputation, Fresno State is fighting the brain drain in the Central Valley.

The trend has magnified in the past 10 years with attempts by Fresno State to slow the bleeding. It is a predicament that Fresno State has addressed directly with programs such as the Smittcamp Family Honors College.

Many of the top high school students do not even consider Fresno State, a trend that Vinovrski is trying to combat.

Fresno State enrolled nearly 1,000 more first-time students this past fall than in 1999. However, the number of students from Fresno County enrolling at Fresno State has dropped.

“We’ve put more time and resources recruiting outside the area – getting the Fresno message out,” Vinovrski said. “We survey first-time freshmen about why they came here and if we were their first choice.”

Major choice and quality of an academic program are the number one reasons they select Fresno State. Vinovrski also surveys students who don’t enroll at Fresno State. The brain drain not only affects Fresno State, but also the region.

“The vitality of the Central Valley is predicated on an educated workforce,” Vinovrski said.

Although SAT scores have been dormant at Fresno State, the average G.P.A. has gone up slightly. SAT scores combined with G.P.A. levels are the best predictors of success for a university, Vinovrski said.

However, in the CSU system, SAT scores are not an application requirement. If a high school student has a 3.0 G.P.A. and the 16 prescribed high school academic units, SAT scores are not required.

It means that students with G.P.A. under 3.0 must submit scores. Students with higher G.P.A.s never have to submit scores, unlike the UC system or private universities. However, it does put all of the CSU system on a level playing field.

“To a certain degree there’s a dis-incentive to take SATs in the CSU, which is somewhat unfortunate,” Vinovrski said.

According to the College Board, the company that develops and administers the SAT, only the CSU schools in Northridge, Los Angeles and San Bernardino had lower average SAT test scores than Fresno last year.

There is also a small percentage of students that leave Fresno State after just a few semesters.

“There are a number of students who leave Fresno State that attain a 3.0 G.P.A.,” Vinovrski said. “That’s a huge loss of academic talent. The numbers aren’t outlandish. Is it because they didn’t want to be here to begin with, so they transferred to a different institution? I don’t know, it’s speculation.”

Stephen Rodemeyer, Ph.D., the director of the Smittcamp Family Honors College, is at the forefront of preventing the brain drain.

“Over the past decades, Fresno State doesn’t have the reputation of having high academic quality,” Rodemeyer said. “We’re trying to identify, recruit and then retain high-quality students.”

Rodemeyer also said that many top students who leave the Fresno area usually begin their professions in the area where they went to school.

“All high school students want to get away,” he said. “I think it’s because they don’t think they can get the education that they want at Fresno State. Maybe their parents think so also.”

The Smittcamp Family Honors College, which has only been in existence for 10 years, can only award 50 scholarships per year. Rodemeyer estimates that around 40 are from the Central Valley, where most of the recruiting focuses.

Applications to Smittcamp range from about 400 to 600 a year. There was a three-year stretch where the Honors College had 75 students, but budget cuts reduced the number back down to the original 50.

Rodemeyer said that the quality of the applications are so high that the Honors College could easily add 25 more students. Rodemeyer plans to increase the number of scholarships the moment more money arrives.

The Smittcamp program is trying to improve the reputation of Fresno State for the future.

“It might take another five or 10 years to get the reputation changed,” Rodemeyer said. “We’ve only had the Honors College for 10 years. It’s going to take people that graduate from Fresno State to come back and make their mark on the Valley.”

Rodemeyer also said that Fresno State has people now – not just in the Honors Program – who go on to high quality graduate schools.

The relatively slow action to keep local students in the Valley is reflective of how slow progress will be to create a better Fresno State reputation.

Fresno State has been in a trend where the number of regular applications have been increasing from every area — except the Fresno region.

However, a more diversified applicant pool has emerged. Fresno State has moved from predominantly Caucasian to virtually completely diversified.

Fresno State Vice President for University Advancement Peter Smits has seen the diversity explosion. Smits said it’s happened in the past 15 years.

“There is no majority on campus anymore,” Smits said. “I think the college bound population has changed. Fresno State is actually kind of a microcosm of California.”

Smits thinks that Fresno State is the most diverse campus in the CSU system.

“We are still very much a regional university,” he said. “To understand the demographics of Fresno State, you have to understand the demographics of the region,”

Vinovrski has noticed the diversification come from two main ethnicities.

“We’ve always done very well in the Latino community, but I think there has been more of a boost in the Asian population,” he said.

Vinovrski said that Fresno State’s primary market is still defined as the local area. Part of Fresno State’s sub-average reputation also reflects the economics of the area.

“Part of it is poverty and disadvantage,” Vinovrski said. “If you come from a family where no one has gone to college and the family is economically distressed, there’s been no incentive or role model. It becomes the jobs of the schools.”

Fresno State has suffered slightly because of the university’s mission to accept every qualified student.

“To a certain degree, low-cost education contributes to longer graduation rates,” Vinovrski said. “If you can’t produce graduates, how can the Central Valley attract business?”

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