Sacramento State graduation czar hired to improve completion rates

Jim Draga chats with Zoey Pha, a junior psychology major at Sacramento State, on Thursday, February 11, 2016. Draga, called the ‘graduation czar,’ was hired to help the college improve its four-year graduation rate.
Jim Draga chats with Zoey Pha, a junior psychology major at Sacramento State, on Thursday, February 11, 2016. Draga, called the ‘graduation czar,’ was hired to help the college improve its four-year graduation rate.

Jim Dragna is Sacramento State’s first-ever graduation czar.

He likes the title, although he says it makes students laugh and embarrasses his children. The moniker gives a face to the school’s initiatives to improve graduation rates, he said, allowing him to make personal connections.

President Robert Nelsen created the position – officially known as the executive director of university initiatives and student success – to raise graduate rates that are among the lowest in the California State University system. Only 8 percent of freshmen who began their studies in 2010 graduated in the 2014-15 school year.

Dragna, 61, says he shares the president’s vision to make Sacramento State more student-centered. Many universities worldwide have addressed retention and graduation rates by customizing and personalizing the college experience, he said Thursday.

“We know if the university becomes a relationship and not a transaction that students tend to persist,” he said.

By the end of next year, every student at the school will be using a software package to help design their pathway through college, said Ed Mills, vice president for student affairs. The software will allow students to plan their coursework, make changes to their education plan and see immediately how the changes will determine the classes they need to take. If they make a change, it will calculate how it affects their time to graduation.

Advisers and teachers also will have access to this information. Dragna envisions a group of supporting people surrounding students, including a counselor who can refer the student to other resources and peer advisers.

The software also will help the university more accurately determine how many courses in each subject need to be offered, as well as to use the information to help future students.

Dragna, who started Jan. 27, has just started to shuffle through the university’s 33 programs designed to speed graduation to decide which would have the greatest impact and are the best use of university resources. The university has budgeted $4.7 million to spend on the initiatives in 2015-16.

“They are excellent work, and I came at a great time to build on that work,” he said. “But the idea is to be much more strategic about how we put them in place, when we put them in place and, again, with the idea of what their impact will be on the retention rates.”

Dragna, whose annual salary is $144,996, was selected after a nationwide search. He came from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he had been the director for student success for more than three years. He moved there a few months after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit the region. Because the devastation from the quake caused many to move out of the area, the popular engineering university lost a quarter of its students.

The university moved from the British style of lecturing students to a more student-oriented interactive approach, Dragna said. The retention rate at the school grew higher than it was before the earthquake, he said.

“It was really quite exciting to be a part of,” he said.

It’s unclear why Sacramento State graduation rates are so low. The student body has its hurdles. A high number of students at the school are low-income or first-generation students. Twenty percent work at least part-time. Many who enroll must take remedial courses before they can take classes that earn credits toward graduation.

Exit surveys show that most people leave college for financial or for personal or family health reasons, Dragna said. But, in the last 10 years, the number of students nationally who leave because of depression and anxiety are on the rise.

He said having 25 percent of all freshmen in the dorms will allow the university to deal with emotional issues before they emerge.

Dragna, who was previously a psychotherapist, gets excited when he talks about the human brain and its development. He and other faculty members will be teaching professors about brain development as it relates to teaching and learning, as well as identifying best practices. “Instructors are so hungry for this,” he said. “I’ve never met a faculty so motivated.”

Sacramento State has maintained a graduation rate around 8 percent for over two decades, moving up and down one or two points each year, officials said. In recent years it has increased its five-year graduation rate to 32 percent and its six-year rate to 46 percent.

It is now turning its focus to four-year graduation rates.

Moving the graduation rate up one point would only require that 35 more students receive their diploma. “Why not get to know those students?” Dragna said.

The new graduation czar is confident that Sacramento State will be able to exceed the California State University’s graduation goal.

“We will exceed the goal of 24 percent by 2025 and will do it more quickly then we can imagine, utilizing the power of students,” he said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Jim Dragna

Experience: director of student success at University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand; senior associate vice president for student affairs at the University of South Florida; associate vice chancellor for student development and, earlier, executive director of student development services at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington; and director of the Center for Student Counseling and personal Growth at North Dakota State University.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in theology from Notre Dame and a master’s degree and doctorate in counseling education from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Fun fact: All three of his children were featured extras in the 2002 movie “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

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