Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen used his fall address Thursday to emphasize his drive to get students to graduate within four years, a benchmark that very few at the school have accomplished in recent years.
Nelsen’s speech marked the traditional start of the fall semester rush, with hundreds of students moving into dorms Friday and classes starting Monday. As part of its “Finish in Four” campaign, the university is asking freshmen to pledge to take 30 units of classes each year, or 15 each semester.
During summer orientation, 62 percent of incoming freshmen signed a pledge to take that load in the first year, Nelsen said. In general, that would require taking four or five classes each semester.
Nelsen said in an interview after his speech that students who signed the pledge are eligible for discounted tuition in summer and intersessions, early registration and extra time with counselors. “We will be there for you,” he said.
Sacramento State’s graduation rates are among the lowest in the California State University system. Only 8 percent of freshmen who began their studies in 2010 graduated in spring 2014.
An ongoing challenge is that a high percentage of freshmen require remediation because they cannot perform at a college level when they enter. Last fall, 39.7 percent of CSU Sacramento freshmen needed remediation in English while 39.5 percent needed help in math, according to state data. Remedial courses do not count toward graduation, which leaves those students at a disadvantage for getting out in four years unless they take a heavy course load or classes outside the fall and spring semesters.
Students in past years also have complained about getting shut out of classes they need to graduate, particularly during the recession.
Nelsen said the university has added counselors and classes to help students avoid bottlenecks. In October, students will have access to Smart Planner, an online degree planner, so they can track which classes they need to graduate. Staff are also using new software to identify courses with high demand and to increase offerings.
“Yes, some students can’t graduate in four years, but many, many can – and we must set that as the expectation as a university,” he said.
The president also used his speech to announce the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, which will work to improve the campus climate and increase the number of underrepresented minorities on the faculty and staff, he said. In 2015, 68 percent of CSUS faculty were white, compared to 30 percent of students.
“Our faculty does not reflect our student body,” Nelsen said.
Sacramento State will start the year with a $1.46 million deficit, despite an $11 million increase in funding fueled by student growth, he said. The school is spending the $11 million on faculty and staff pay raises and additional classes to eliminate bottlenecks.
The university will make up the deficit by asking each division on campus, including the President’s Office, to cut its budget by 1 percent.
“What is important is that we still plan to hire 69 additional faculty in this coming year, and we will be addressing salary equity issues,” he said. “And we are doing so without raising tuition or asking our students and their parents to take on a greater percentage of funding the university.”
The campus also is undergoing a transformation, with $290 million in construction projects planned or underway. Among them is a $91 million, five-story science building, which will include 120 classrooms, 20 laboratories and an auditorium. Like most of the new construction, the building will include gender-neutral bathrooms. Other projects include an addition and update to the University Union, a new parking structure and a visitors center.
Nelsen apologized for the construction, saying he has heard complaints from students.
The university still needs $163 million to update classrooms and labs, replace elevators, and repair bathrooms, Nelsen said. There’s “so much we need to flat-out fix.”
All 23 CSU campuses must share $25 million in state funds for maintenance. CSUS will address Americans with Disabilities deficiencies and for other safety concerns on campus first, Nelsen said.
The university also is expanding downtown with a School of Public Affairs at 304 S St. that will also house campus programs related to government.
“We are not only transforming lives, one student at a time, but as California’s capital university, we are transforming the capital itself,” he said.
Nelsen ended with his usual exuberant “Stingers Up,” lifting a green foam finger into the air as he exited the stage.