ROHNERT PARK -- The ability of California’s universities to put 1 million new graduates into the workforce by 2025 will be a key factor in the ongoing competitiveness of the state’s economy, with the California State University system expected to play a central role in those efforts over the next decade, said CSU chancellor Timothy White, PhD.

Speaking to a group of business and academic leaders at the 21st-annual Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference Wednesday, Dr. White said that the 23-campus CSU system is responsible for approximately 55 percent of the state’s college graduates.

The question -- one for which Dr. White outlined a seven-part plan of action -- is how the country’s largest public university system will accommodate an increasing number of students when state funding has stayed essentially flat for 20 years.Growth seen for North Bay in 2014 SSU forecast

Read a summary of economist Robert Eyler's forecast for the North Bay economy presented at the conference.SSU Economic Forecast Conference report

See the Feb. 24, 2014, issue of the Business Journal for this extensive report:Welcome from William Silver, dean of the School of Business & EconomicsSonoma State University at a glanceNew state budget upbeat on economy, jobsAligning higher ed, career optionsCSU chancellor: Public, private collaboration keyExperts discuss emerging workforce issuesNorth Bay economy looks positive in 2014North Coast to add jobs through 2020

“The demand is startlingly huge,” said Dr. White, who noted a 10 percent increase in applications over the past two years and a student body that has grown by 100,000 individuals over two decades.

The CSU as a whole currently enrolls around 437,000 students, with about 9,100 at Sonoma State. The system received applications from around 300,000 prospective students for the coming fall semester, with room for about 125,000, Dr. White said.

Accommodating those remaining students, and more in the coming years, will take a number of measures, according to Dr. White. The chancellor reiterated an earlier announcement of $50 million in new CSU funds allocated to that achieving that goal, and outlined his plans to move students through the system faster and with greater prospects for employment.

Areas of focus include a greater proportion of full-time faculty, enhanced academic and career advising, elimination of bottlenecks in degree attainment, improvements in college preparatory skills for students, support of “high-impact” programs like study abroad, and a greater implementation of data analytics in degree decision making.

He acknowledged that those efforts come amid a “systematic disinvestment” from the state of California, forcing measures such as the canceling of most enrollment in the spring semester of 2013.[poll id="109"]

“The truth of the matter is -- today we have the same amount of money as we did 20 years ago and 100,000 more students. Simple math would suggest that cost per degree has gone down. But you ask a student, and they say, ‘Prices are going up.’ It’s not the prices that are going up, but it’s the balance of who is paying for it,” Dr. White said.

Today’s student fees account for approximately 50 percent of total tuition, a proportion that has grown during the recent economic downturn. The passage of Proposition 30 in California helped stave off further increases, with a typical undergraduate paying $4,600 per year at Sonoma State.

While acknowledging how that shift has impacted students and their families, Dr. White said that the current level of financial support from the state was unlikely to change. Holding that line is a new priority, he said.

“The reality is -- we’re never going to go back to the good old days where California will pay the majority of the cost for students,” he said. In today’s CSU, “there’s a private good, and the student pays for that. There’s a public good, and the state pays for that.”

Calling on employers to support that “private good,” Dr. White asked business interests to connect with deans, offer internships and create scholarships whenever possible as a way to nurture their emerging workforce.

Among those who have embraced that role are Agilent Technologies, whose Santa Rosa-based electronic measurement division will spin off into a separate company “Keysight” later this year. The company has donated millions in equipment along with extensive advising and internship opportunities for students at Sonoma State, efforts that Vice President Ingrid Estrada said demonstrate the company’s goal to foster its next generation of employees.

Ms. Estrada was a member of a Workforce 2020 panel at the conference co-presented by the Business Journal, Sonoma State University and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.

“Up here, it’s quite difficult to find these jobs,” said Ms. Estrada, participating in a “Workforce 2020” panel. “The dream would be to work with educators to fill these positions now, and to create a pipeline for the future.”

Sonoma State has itself taken further measures to connect students with potential employers in recent years, including the creation of a full-time career center within the School of Business and Economics. The center spearheads job workshops and advising for students, fueled by concern that the 10,000 hours spent on a typical degree include an average of only six hours devoted to a career search, said Sarah Dove, the center’s director and also a member of the Workforce 2020 panel.

Students now have an average of eight career advising sessions, and job postings at the center have risen by 70 percent over the past year, Ms. Dove said.

Another panel participant, Matt Cooper of Redwood City-based oDesk, said that his company’s Web-based freelancer platform is among those that are making it easier for students to connect with employers, regardless of geography.

“The days of ‘big fish in a small pond’ are over. The ponds are starting to merge,” he said.

A similar technology revolution is also expanding the reach of the CSU, with 24 degrees now offered completely online and Sonoma State itself offering three online certificates including a wine industry finance designation. Yet Dr. White cautioned that those innovations were not a cure-all.

“It’s not the only answer. We have to have a lot of arrows in our quiver, online being one of them,” he said.

Participants agreed that the modern college graduate is likely to be more fluid in employment than previous generations, with Ms. Dove noting efforts to foster a “strong personal brand” for students at the business school. Yet with those trends come new complications, said Craig Nelson, another panel participant and board chairman of the staffing and consulting firm, Nelson.

“As we become more of a free-agent nation, the government is going to have a field day figuring out what all these workers are,” he said.