Charles Gossett serves as interim vice president for academic affairs and provost at California State University, Sacramento. Lori Varlotta serves as vice president for student affairs. They are responding to the Aug. 5 front-page story "CSUS 4-year degree elusive" and the Aug. 9 editorial "CSU must return to basics to help graduation rates." The editorial said it was "abysmal and unacceptable" that "only 8 percent of 2,469 students who started as freshmen at Sacramento State in fall 2007 graduated in four years."
As Sacramento State administrators, we couldn't agree more that we must improve the time it takes our students be they incoming freshmen or transfer students to graduate.
The reality is that graduation rates at state colleges and universities across the country are low, and the reasons for these disconcerting numbers are extensive. But rather than point fingers, we are dedicated to working with Sacramento's K-12 educational pipeline and policy-making world to say "here is what we will do" to chip away at the issues that result in low graduation rates.
Taking full responsibility for our role, we have put in place several new programs and plan additional ones.
In 2006, we implemented a mandatory advising program requiring freshmen to meet with an adviser not once, but three times during their first year in college. We made this change knowing that strong freshman advising programs are correlated with increased retention and graduation rates. The early results are positive as retention rates for participating students have increased 10 percent.
Additionally, we instituted a mandatory advising program for second-year students on academic probation, because helping struggling students stay in school is a key factor in boosting graduation rates. Implemented in 2009, this program also shows significant promise. Before the program was in place, only 18 percent of second-year probation students were able to get off probation and maintain good academic standing by the end of their second year. Now, 43 percent of students earn high enough grades to get off probation by year's end a 25 percentage-point increase.
Academic advisers and faculty also developed new "road maps" or course pathways for every academic major. These maps posted on departmental websites since last year show students which courses they need to graduate in four years. Of course, not all students plan to graduate in four years, depending on their personal situation. Of those students who began here and who do graduate from Sacramento State, however, the average length of time is 4.8 years and has been for the past several years. Some high-unit majors, such as engineering, average a little longer.
In addition to developing new programs, we are revising academic policies to accelerate a student's progress toward a degree. We are revising the registration policy to give priority to those seniors closest to graduation seniors with only one semester left will be able to register before seniors who need two or more semesters to graduate. Finally, several of our degree programs have now been declared "impacted," which means that admission to the major is controlled by resource availability rather than just student demand.
The faculty also have been looking at ways of streamlining educational requirements while maintaining academic quality. Recently, changes were made to limit the value to a student of repeating a class. And a proposal to modify the current general education and special graduation requirements will be debated in the Faculty Senate this year.
We have undertaken these initiatives in full recognition of our mission to ensure access to a quality education and that we serve a different student body. The average age of our undergraduate students is 23, and many of our students work up to 20 to 25 hours a week to help cover college costs.
In addition, about two-thirds of our incoming freshmen, even those who fully meet admission requirements, require remediation in English and/or math.
Delineating these facts is not the same as making excuses. On the contrary, we approach these realities with pragmatism and prudence, and will continue to create and implement the interventions and support services best known to help students.
Such interventions cost money, and these measures are vulnerable to cuts in state appropriations. None of us should underestimate the devastating impact of ongoing state budget cuts to the California State University system and, in turn, Sacramento State.
In 2007, state support accounted for roughly 70 percent of Sacramento State's operating budget. In the past academic year, the state share was down to 45 percent. Class sections are down university-wide by 15 percent since 2007, while the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty is down by about 100.
Despite those reductions, the Sacramento regional community and most especially, students and their parents should be reassured that we have been hard at work when it comes to ensuring that our students graduate from Sacramento State with a high-quality education in an expeditious time frame.
The challenges loom large. But make no mistake, we are committed to fulfilling our obligation to provide a quality education for our students.