Quick Take:

California State University Monterey Bay jumped up several spots in new college rankings from U.S. News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal. CSUMB President Vanya Quiñones attributed the jump in part to changes in the rankings system methodology that rewarded the school’s efforts to help students graduate with work prospects. The publications updated their methodologies this year after facing criticism that the rankings have too much influence on schools’ and families’ decision-making.

Two influential national publications made significant changes to their college and university ranking systems this year, shifting away from factors such as class size and alumni donations to criteria they say better reflect the value colleges provide to their students, such as the graduation rates of low-income students.

California State University Monterey Bay was among the biggest beneficiaries of these changes, jumping from 383rd out of 400 schools in the country in last year’s Wall Street Journal rankings to 119th this year. In rankings by U.S. News & World Report, the school jumped two spots to No. 2 for social mobility among the top schools in the Western region. It also went from being the seventh-ranked public school in the Western region to sixth.

“We’re very proud that we have such a top ranking but more that we have a university that is top-ranked that is accessible for people,” said CSUMB President Vanya Quiñones.

Quiñones attributed the jump to changes in the rankings system methodology that rewarded CSUMB’s efforts to help students graduate with work prospects. CSUMB, which sits between Seaside and Marina, was founded in 1994 and serves about 7,000 students, a third of whom are from Monterey County. Almost half are Latino and more than half are women.

U.S. News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal modified their methodologies this year after facing criticism such as that the rankings have too much influence on schools’ and families’ decision-making.

U.S. News & World Report removed five factors entirely from this year’s rankings including the alumni giving rate, the proportion of graduates who borrow and class size. Both publications instead placed a higher emphasis on the value a college provides its students. For example, they weighed more heavily or added factors like how often a school’s students from all socioeconomic backgrounds graduated with degrees and the proportion of a school’s students with federal loan grants who earned more than a high school graduate.

“We’ve expanded the importance of student outcomes: graduation rates and graduate salaries,” the Journal wrote. “Critically, we now put greater emphasis on measuring the value added by colleges — not simply measuring their students’ success, but focusing on the contribution the college makes to that success.”

Quiñones, the fourth president of CSUMB, just finished her first year on the job after starting last August. The rankings come as a positive start to the year. To her, they reflect how the school prepares its students for their careers.

She said CSUMB is the only school in the CSU system, and one of the only in the country, that requires its students to complete off-campus community service hours — putting those students ahead when it comes to having ties with community organizations and businesses.

Cal State Monterey Bay president
Vanya Quiñones just finished her first year as Cal State Monterey Bay president. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“It means that when they graduate, their CV is very rich and they’re able to get top-notch jobs,” Quiñones said. “So I think that it’s a combination of the ranking, which itself has been modified, but also a lot of internal things that we’re doing to ensure that the students are graduating and have a rich work history and service history so they can get a better job.”

While she’s celebrating the recognition, Quiñones said the rankings won’t change anything about how the school operates.

She recalls how a private school she worked at focused on manipulating the formulas used by those rankings to try to climb the rankings. She said CSUMB’s goals will continue to focus on student success and graduation, which will continue to affect its ranking naturally.

“Our value proposition is not a ranking,” she said. “Our value proposition is making sure our students move forward.”

Quiñones spent her first year as president focused on visiting school groups, listening to their concerns, increasing community engagement on and off campus and using what she learned from that to create goals for the upcoming year. In those meetings, she heard a need for increasing transparency and communication and for an enrollment-management plan amid declining enrollment trends statewide.

Her goals for the 2023-24 school year are to create a strong sense of community on campus, continue to increase communication on and off campus, maintain a balanced budget and improve student processes to best use resources. A main thread running through these goals is ensuring student success and retention and improved graduation rates.

One exciting project Quiñones said couldn’t come soon enough is the addition of 1,000 student housing units. The university currently houses up to 3,219 students and has about 541 units for staff and faculty.

She said construction has yet to begin on the new project, but the school hopes to have students moving into the new dorms, which will be adjacent to current student housing buildings, by fall 2025.

On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay
On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Quiñones expects that will make a big difference for the school’s commuting students and could help attract new ones, thus helping CSUMB to battle declining enrollment. The university peaked in 2019 with a total enrollment of 7,650; that number has since gradually declined, Quiñones said, partly due to the pandemic and the high cost of living.

Last year, the university said it planned to increase its enrollment by more than 80%, to about 12,700, but did not set a time frame to achieve that growth. Quiñones said she is reevaluating that goal: “Do you need a really huge university here or do you just need a university that is more residential, small?

“I’m revisiting that,” she said. “I think that the question is, what is the real capacity for the university — not only in terms of buildings, but in terms of supporting the community and what should the size be?”

She also acknowledged that CSUMB is competing with larger schools such as UC Santa Cruz, San Jose State and San Francisco State.

A big part of enrollment and retention is creating a strong sense of community and belonging. Quiñones said the school is developing traditions and adding events so students can have a shared identity as otters — their school mascot.

Among those, Quiñones said, are new weekly Otter Thursdays, when the campus community wears their school colors. The school will hold its first Halloween parade, and it also hosted its second Otter Plunge — an early morning jump into the ocean — this year.

Last year, about 50 students and staff attended the first Otter Plunge; on Aug. 20, about 500 people jumped into the ocean at Monterey State Beach near the Monterey Tides hotel.

Quiñones said 60-year-olds like herself shouldn’t be doing cold plunges anymore, but she did it.

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