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Cal State Northridge Is a Regional Asset--Not a Regional Disaster : The university has been criticized for low graduation rates. What critics don't realize is that students work outside jobs to put themselves through school.

September 19, 1993|ROBERT OLIPHANT | Robert Oliphant is a writer and management consultant who teaches English at Cal State Northridge

Cal State Northridge, once called San Fernando Valley State College, is still essentially a Valley institution.

As a Valley resident, I get my teeth looked at by a dentist who is a CSUN graduate. I had a broken arm set last year by a Kaiser-Permanente surgeon who is a CSUN graduate. And I am capably represented in Sacramento by a legislator who is a CSUN graduate.

Recent criticisms of CSUN, unfortunately, suggest the school is today more of a regional disaster than a regional asset.

Low graduation rates, canceled classes, poor advisement--these have gotten plenty of attention during the last few months, including the front page of the New York Times on Sept. 1, and it is usually coupled with assertions that CSUN and schools like it are not at all doing what colleges are supposed to do.

Factually accurate though these criticisms may be, their perspective is seriously flawed, since they fail to take into account how a "people's university" like CSUN actually works as an effective force in the region it serves.

Each year, CSUN awards baccalaureate degrees to several thousand such men and women, many of whom transfer to CSUN from our area's excellent community colleges: Pasadena, Glendale, Pierce, Mission, Valley, Moorpark, College of the Canyons, Lancaster and Ventura. Most of them continue to live and work in this area, a major force in creating our growth and prosperity over the years.

Much of CSUN's effectiveness stems from the fact that it does not match our picture of what a college should be, as presented in movies like "Pigskin Parade," "Bedtime for Bonzo" and "Animal House."

In the movies, the typical student is a young, relatively affluent full-time student with a robust schedule of extracurricular activities supervised by avuncular deans and tweedy professors in ivy-covered halls flanked by dormitories.

As longtime Valley residents know, CSUN students have always been older, commuting students (the current average age is 26). They have always worked at outside jobs (28.5 outside hours per week is the current average). And they have always taken much longer than the conventional four years to earn their degrees.

Here are the two key principals involved in CSUN's continuing effectiveness.

* Degree completion is more important than academic speed.

As the economist Lester Thurow has pointed out, a high school diploma is worth about $900 a month on the entry level in today's job market, as opposed to $1,500 for an associate in arts degree and $2,000 for a baccalaureate degree. But as he also points out, partial progress doesn't count. An AA degree has far more value than the academic transcript of someone who dropped out five or six courses short of completing a BA program--even a highly prestigious one.

Since degree completion is what's important, not the speed with which it's earned, CSUN slow-pace outside-job students in the long run do very well in the job market, especially with employers who respect a BA backed up with an impressive workplace record.

* Junior and senior courses are more important than freshman and sophomore courses.

The distinguishing feature of an earned BA is its identification of a major field: history, engineering, business, chemistry and so on. Since the requirements for each major are stated in terms of junior/senior courses, with freshman/sophomore courses largely devoted to all-university general education, CSUN's unique function in our regional post-secondary system is that of offering these degree-essential junior/senior courses, especially since many transfer-acceptable freshman/sophomore courses are available at neighboring community colleges.

In human terms, the cancellation of a needed junior/senior course represents a major setback for a student who's only 30 units short of graduating with a BA. It's also a blow to the Valley economy's need for that student's potential contribution.

The cancellation of freshman and sophomore courses, while infuriating to many students and their parents, is fundamentally less damaging.

Since CSUN students must in effect work their way through school via outside jobs, it's worth noting that many wisely go to a technical college first for a few months, thereby ensuring they'll be working for more than minimum wage--$4.25 an hour--during the next seven or eight years.

To come right out with it, CSUN is right now doing exactly what it should be doing, especially in view of recent recommendations by our California Assembly Committee on Higher Education.

CSUN's critics, including those on campus, should recognize its crucial importance in our regional economy and in our regional post-secondary education system.

CSUN has never been a "college movie" school. And it will never be one.

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