A veteran higher education leader named Wednesday to become the next chancellor of California State University is pledging an effort to lift graduation rates in the nation’s largest four-year university system.

Joseph I. Castro, president of Fresno State University since 2013, will be the first Mexican American and first native Californian to become chancellor of the system known as Cal State when he takes office in January. With 23 campuses and 482,000 students, Cal State serves a critical role in higher education for the Golden State alongside the University of California and California’s community colleges.

Castro, 53, will replace outgoing Chancellor Timothy P. White. Cal State drew national attention in May when White announced that the system would operate in a mostly virtual mode in the fall term because of the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, White extended that plan to the spring 2021 term.

It will be Castro’s challenge to lead the system to a return to full classroom teaching. He said Wednesday that the pandemic highlights the public university’s key role in social mobility.

“Especially during covid, the CSU system is more consequential than ever before because of the students that we serve,” Castro said. “We want to make sure they have the opportunity to get a degree and become part of the leadership of California and the country.”

About 43 percent of Cal State’s students are of Hispanic or Latino background. An additional 22 percent identify as White, and 16 percent are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Four percent of its students are Black. The rest are of international, multiracial or other backgrounds.

Cal State officials say about 62 percent of their students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. They are pushing to raise that share in the next several years to 70 percent.

Castro said he wants to increase private philanthropy and strengthen partnerships with public schools and the community colleges that provide a major pipeline of transfer students.

Asked how soon Cal State can return to in-person teaching, he said that depends on the public health situation and the development and distribution of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. He said the spring semester in 2021 will look much like this fall. But he hopes to make “substantial progress” afterward on reopening classrooms.

Born in the San Joaquin Valley, Castro is the grandson of Mexican immigrants. He was the first in his family to graduate from a university, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California at Berkeley. He also holds a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford University.

At Fresno State, he leads a university with more than 24,000 students. More than 60 percent of its undergraduates have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants.

Lillian Kimbell, chair of Cal State’s board of trustees, said the search for a replacement for White had focused on finding “somebody to lead us through the unknown.” She said Castro stood out amid a “deep pool of very qualified candidates.” She called him an “incredibly humble man who has done amazing things in Fresno.”