Two graduates walking across a grassy field.

The California State University: The Most Significant Transformational Force for Social Mobility in the Nation

Jeff Gold, Assistant Vice Chancellor Student Success Strategic Initiatives


Two graduates walking across a grassy field.

​Photo by Jason Halley/Chico State.

​​Amid the past year’s seemingly unending deluge of bad news, you may have overlooked a respite from the storm—an important affirmation of hope and opportunity in the form of several uplifting studies that provide definitive proof of a still-thriving American Dream. The research has concluded that an affordable path for students from low-income families to dramatically alter their life trajectories is flourishing right here in our backyard. It’s the California State University (CSU), the national leader for social mobility, offering the United States’ largest and most diverse student body—486,000 strong—​plentiful opportunities to earn a life-changing college degree leading to high-paying jobs that pave the way to financial security while elevating families and communities across the state and nation. 

Earning a college degree brings with it a host of lasting economic benefits. College graduates earn approximately one million dollars more throughout their lifetime than their high school graduate peers and are far less likely to be unemployed. While these benefits are enjoyed by degree holders from all backgrounds, the rewards are most dramatic for those from low-income families who—with a college diploma in hand—unlock new opportunities to thrive in productive careers, which often come with health, retirement and other vital benefits. For years, the existence and prevalence of these economic transformations was largely anecdotal, but thanks to recent studies, we now have conclusive evidence that the CSU is a social mobility powerhouse—unmatched in lifting vast numbers of low-income students to a more secure and prosperous future.

One such study, CollegeNet’s Social Mobility Index​, analyzed data from approximately 1,500 universities to identify those that excel at serving low-income students by offering affordable tuition, supporting them through graduation, and facilitating their smooth transition to good-paying jobs. Across these social mobility measures, CSU campuses were among the highest ranked universities in the nation. The majority of the CSU’s 23 campuses were included in the top five percent of institutions for driving economic mobility, and an astonishing seven campuses (Cal State LA, Fresno State, CSU Northridge, Cal State Long Beach, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State San Bernardino and CSU Dominguez Hills) were in the top 10. Similarly impressive results were revealed in Education Reform Now’s Social Mobility Elevators study where Cal State Long Beach received the top honors, and in the Equality of Opportunity Project’s Mobility Report Cards which ranked Cal State LA as the nation’s leading institution for helping to catapult their students’ family income from less than $20,000 a year to $110,000 or more 10 years after graduation.

While these results are stunning, the data that will inform future social mobility research are likely to distinguish the CSU even further. That’s because, with average annual tuition and fees of just $7,363, the CSU is one of the most affordable public universities in the nation, offering its students generous financial support and unbeatable educational value. More than eighty percent of Cal State students receive some form of financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition, and over the last decade, tuition has been increased only once by a total of $270. That’s right, $270! As a result, while alumni from pricier institutions may be paying off student loans for years, most Cal State students graduate with zero debt.

Complementing its commitment to affordability, student success is the CSU’s top priority. As part of Graduation Initiative 2025, the university’s flagship student-success effort, the CSU has set some of the most ambitious degree completion and equity goals in the nation, and is working tirelessly to ensure that students from all backgrounds are successful. Just halfway through the initiative, graduation rates for students from all walks of life are at all-time highs, with record numbers of CSU students earning high-quality degrees and embarking on careers that will expand their families’ economic prospects for generations to come.

At a time when stark racial and socioeconomic inequities have been laid bare across the nation, the CSU represents the most significant transformational force of social mobility in our country, empowering students from all backgrounds to realize their true potential and promise. While this is cause for celebration, significant work likes ahead to lift future generations to new economic heights. Now, more than ever, is the time to bolster our investment in the California State University so it can continue to shine as a beacon of opportunity, and support future members of the nation’s most diverse student body in enriching our communities and achieving the American Dream.