Robert S. Nelsen makes no secret of his top priority as Sacramento State’s new president. “I’m going to change the student success rate,” he declares. “That’s why I’m here.”
It’s a huge challenge, but it’s the right one to take on, and he’s off to an auspicious start.
Symbolically, it was important for him to speak at freshman orientation on his first official day last week. He’s putting his money where his mouth is – he turned down a $2.6 million home in Fair Oaks, paid for by the university foundation, and bought his own $800,000 house in East Sacramento. (The money is going to kitchens in student dorms instead.)
Substantively, he has some promising ideas to boost graduation rates. And boy, do they need improving.
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Sac State’s four-year graduation rate of 9 percent is so low that it looks like a typo. It’s one of the worst of any California State University campus, and well below the systemwide average of 19 percent. The percentage of first-time freshmen who graduate within six years is 44 percent, but that’s still below the CSU average of 54 percent.
In five years, Nelsen’s goal is to get the four-year rate closer to 25 percent and the six-year rate above 50 percent.
To get there, he says Sac State has to help area high schools better prepare students before they arrive on campus. It’s unacceptable, Nelsen says, that 56 percent of first-year students have to take remedial classes.
But the university must also unclog its own bottlenecks that prevent students from graduating on time.
He’s pushing online degree plans so that students can track graduation requirements – and so deans can meet demand for specific courses. He wants to offer a $500 tuition credit to students who take bigger course loads, and to increase summer course offerings. If students take only the minimum 12 hours a semester to qualify for financial aid, it will take five years to reach the 120 hours to graduate.
While student success is Job 1, Nelsen has other major issues on his agenda.
He’s seeking CSU system and private money for a new science building estimated to cost at least $70 million. While that’s a higher priority for him than a new student events center – with a price tag upward of $100 million – he says fundraising for both can happen simultaneously because it’s two different pools of donors.
Nelsen wants to strengthen ties with more than 200,000 alumni. He must get buy-in from administrators and particularly faculty. He seems to be a straight shooter, but he also needs to be diplomatic. His background as a faculty leader at Texas universities before moving into administration should help him. So will his desire to hire more full-time faculty. Of the nearly 1,400 faculty members, about half are full-time now.
It’s also encouraging that Nelsen sees a broader mission for Sacramento State. He says he’s all in on Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “Sacramento 3.0” vision for a high-tech innovation hub and the Next Economy regional jobs blueprint.
Nelsen, whose last job was president of the University of Texas-Pan American in the Rio Grande Valley, is building on the foundation laid by Alexander Gonzalez, who in 12 years as president raised its stature and helped make it one of the most diverse public universities in the nation.
Nelsen says he faces not a “turnaround” project, but more of a realignment of priorities. “He’s given me a university so good, even I can’t screw it up,” he told The Bee’s editorial board.
The expectations for Nelsen are far higher than that.
He wants to rebrand Sacramento State as the state capital university and make it a star in the CSU system. Getting graduation rates up is an essential starting point.