Starlight Trotter will begin her fifth year at Sacramento State in three weeks.
She isn't happy about it.
The 23-year-old psychology major thought she would be a counselor or therapist by now. Instead, she's still in college and a student assistant in the theater arts department.
"I just want to get out of here," she said recently, as she stapled sheets of paper to bulletin boards in the hallway of the theater arts building.
This is today's reality at California State University, Sacramento: Classes are so packed and hard to come by that students have little chance of graduating within the traditional four years.
Just 8 percent of first-time, degree-seeking Sacramento State students who started classes in 2007 graduated in 2011, the lowest four-year graduation rate in a decade, according to data from the college.
By comparison, about 15 percent of students in the larger CSU system graduate in four years, as do 60 percent of students in the University of California system.
Only four of the state's 36 public universities had a lower four-year graduation rate than Sacramento State, according to the latest state data.
Sacramento State's four-year graduation rate has long been low, but it was improving before the school, in response to state funding cuts, became stingy about class offerings. Sacramento State has seen a $58 million reduction in state funding over the past five years.
In Trotter's major, psychology, the number of undergraduate class seats offered at CSUS fell by 650, or 15 percent, between fall 2011 and fall 2012, barring any last-minute class additions, school records show.
"We have fewer partially filled classes that we allow to continue," said CSUS Provost Charles Gossett. "We focus on having all the classes full."
The trend greatly affects the finances of students and their parents.
Each year at Sacramento State costs about $24,000 for students living on campus, according to university estimates. Lost wages during an extra year in school can range from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on a student's career path.
Trotter, who graduated from Sacramento High School, said she started college with a number of scholarships, which since have run out. She pays for her education with work income and financial aid.
Some of Trotter's friends, she said, chose to drop out because they could no longer afford school.
Last semester, Trotter could get into only one of several psychology classes she still needs to fulfill the requirements of her major and graduate. But she couldn't keep her financial aid and stay in school without taking a full course load.
So Trotter took three classes that won't help her graduate and just one that will.
"It's wishful thinking you are going to get the class you need," Trotter said.
Few seats open in classes
As of last Monday, a day before registration for fall classes at Sacramento State formally closed, about 97 percent of available seats in general education classes required to graduate were filled, according to a Bee review of university records.
In one concentration required of all students before graduation, Oral Communications, 99.8 percent of available seats were filled. In another, Written Communications, 98.9 percent of seats were taken.
Multiple bread-and-butter college classes had no seats available in any sections, including Calculus I, Introduction to Macroeconomics, Chemistry I, Chemistry II and Introduction to Computer Science.
"Over the past 15 years, I've really been able to see how the lives of our students have changed," Lois Boulgarides, a student adviser at Sacramento State, said via email. "The change has been more bleak than I can describe. The number of classes that have been cut because of the budget is immense. In the last three years the situation has gotten much worse."
She said most students can't get into all the classes they need to move closer to graduation each semester. And it's common for community college transfer students to be unable to register for any classes in their major in their first semester, Boulgarides said.
"The impact on teachers and advisers, as you can imagine, is really hard," she said. "We have the job of constantly giving bad news to students who, through no fault of their own, are going to school at a time when education is being underfunded, and more and more classes are being cut."
Trotter's psychology major is among the hardest hit. By the last day of registration for the fall, all but three of roughly 60 undergraduate class sessions in psychology at Sacramento State had no available seats.
For economics majors, just one of 44 undergraduate class sections in their discipline had seats available. For geography majors, not a single seat among 1,200 in their discipline was open by the last day of registration, The Bee's review found.
The result: long wait lists. Students on a wait list usually show up for the first few class meetings, sit on the floor and hope a seat opens up.
Last semester, Trotter went on multiple wait lists. She was able to find a spot in one psychology class. Other classes she took bumped her up on the priority list for registration this semester, which gives preference to students with the most units.
But Trotter needs another 13 units next spring to graduate in June. She isn't confident. The school offers some classes only once a year. "It's a gamble," she said.
Incoming freshmen eating lunch at the Student Union last month shared Trotter's angst.
Jarrett Turpin said he couldn't get a math class, so he took Introduction to American Literature to fulfill an English requirement instead. Freshman Curtis Vincent really wanted Chemistry 1A a formidable class he wished to take with less difficult GE requirements. But that wasn't to be. Instead Vincent will take Introduction to German.
Hurdles to graduating
Sacramento State officials say they are working to address the problem, but budget cuts limit their options.
Mostly due to declining state aid, the entire CSU system cut spending by $1.7 billion, or 15 percent, from fiscal years 2008 to 2012, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. That's equivalent to $4,000 in spending cuts per student.
Budget cuts aside, students share some of the responsibility for low four-year graduation rates, Sacramento State officials said.
"A lot of students come in with a plan to take five or six years to get through school," said Gossett, the provost. Others take majors such as nursing and engineering that require more units to complete.
Some seniors, perhaps afraid of entering a brutal job market, continue to take classes despite having enough units to graduate. The college is working on forcing these "super seniors," who university officials say make up 8 percent of the student body, to walk across the stage and get their degree, Gossett said.
"In the last year or so, when we identify those students, we have their department head call them in and ask them why they haven't completed their degree," Gossett said. "Sometimes, if they have completed their degree, we process them for graduation."
Sacramento State leaders, like their counterparts at other public campuses, primarily focus on improving the university's six-year graduation rate, not the four-year rate. About 41 percent of first-time, degree-seeking Sacramento State students graduate in six years, one of the lowest rates among public colleges in the state.
The CSU chancellor's office has started a graduation initiative that asks each campus to raise its graduation rate by 8 percent by 2015-16. Sacramento State formed its own initiative committee in 2009-10 and has started programs that offer counseling to guide students through their education.
Since the initiative started, college officials said, fewer freshmen are dropping out.
"This is an issue of national concern," said Lori Varlotta, vice president of student affairs at CSUS. "Presidents and system chancellors have been paying a lot of attention to it."
When it comes to improving the four-year graduation rate, school officials say they are developing a plan that would change the registration priority system to favor students who need the least classes to graduate, instead of favoring students who have the most units, Varlotta said.
Gossett said he believes the school's efforts may soon bear fruit and open up more class seats. "My goal is to graduate as many students as possible in the fall," he said. "We're not adding many students in the spring. My hope is we are going to be able to catch up in the spring."