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The College Try

California has long been at the forefront of trying to open higher education to students like Liz — students who, in past generations, might have been priced out of a degree. In 1960, the state enshrined into law the Master Plan for Higher Education. Born of Progressive Era optimism, the three-tiered system now consists of ten University of California campuses, 23 Cal State schools, and 114 community colleges. While UC is the state’s primary research institution, Cal State is the workhorse: cheaper, less exclusive, and much larger. More than half of Cal State’s nearly 500,000 students receive federal Pell Grants, aid for students from low- and middle-income families. One in three of its undergrads is the first in his or her family to attend college.

No type of school has been more successful at lifting the poor up to the middle class and beyond than midtier public universities like the Cal States. In a ranking published this year of colleges that helped the highest percentage of students claw their way out of poverty, four Cal State campuses made the top 10. Cal State Long Beach clinched the last spot, vaulting 78 percent of its students from the bottom of the economic ladder, where household incomes top out around $25,000 a year. But for all the good Cal State does for its alumni, most students there struggle to get their degrees. Only one in five finishes in four years, and a little more than half graduate in six, their progress slowed, in part, by soaring living costs in one of the nation’s most expensive states.