Capitol Alert

‘Finish in Four’ is new mantra for California State University

A pledge to take 15 units a semester, signed by freshmen when they first arrive on campus. New sections of popular courses, like anatomy and statistics. Roaming advisers with tablets, ready to talk about class schedules outside dorms and football games.

Will efforts like these get students through college on time? Sacramento State is banking on it as it undertakes an ambitious effort to more than triple its four-year graduation rate over the next decade.

“I don’t want students to waste $23,000,” Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen said, referring to the approximate cost of tuition for four years. “And if students are coming to college and not getting their courses, they’re wasting their tuition.”

Across its sprawling 23-campus system, California State University is looking for new ways to boost four-year graduation rates that are increasingly under fire as unacceptably low.

At its Los Angeles and Dominguez Hills campuses, 6 percent of students who start as freshmen finish in four years. Maritime Academy, which has the system’s best record, graduates less than half of its freshmen in four years.

With public concern over rising student debt at a fever pitch and political pressure to get more students through faster, the university last week unveiled new targets for freshmen and transfers that will be its major policy priority for the next decade.

The key goals are to get 40 percent of freshmen out in four years and 70 percent done within six years by 2025. That’s up sharply from the current 19 percent four-year and 57 percent six-year rates.

Chancellor Timothy White said the graduation initiative was driven by a sense of responsibility, as the largest university in the country, to play a part in closing a projected shortage of 1.1 million bachelor’s degrees in California by 2025. He refers to the forecast as “a much more pernicious and damaging drought than the one that deals with the gods in the skies and the rainfall.”

 ‘More students to degrees sooner’ – that has been my mantra since Day One,” White said. “Someday I’ll be able to sit back and say, ‘I contributed, I made a difference, and now I can sit back and roast marshmallows.’ 

But he also acknowledged that the bold targets are an appeal to the governor and the Legislature, who have been critical of CSU, for more funding. Rough estimates are that the project will cost an additional $400 million to $500 million annually. White said steady disinvestment from the state over the years, particularly during the economic recession, has caused many of the problems CSU is now grappling with.

“We need the state to be a reliable partner,” he said.

First-time freshmen presently graduate in a median of 4.7 years, according to CSU, which means many students simply need help getting through the system one or two semesters sooner. Students say graduation can be a delayed by a variety of factors, including demanding work schedules and the inability to get time with an adviser.

Michael Pratt is a graduate of and now a master’s of public administration student at Chico State, where a fifth year is so common for undergraduates that it’s called a “victory lap.” He said students concerned about covering their rent and getting their homework done can easily lose track of a path to timely graduation.

“Students don’t always think that far ahead. It’s just about paying for things right now,” he said. “It’s a daily struggle for a lot of those people, because financial aid does not go as far as it used to.”

But the biggest frustration is an inability to get classes.

Yanitza Berrios, a fifth-year biology major at CSU Fullerton, said her original plan was to finish in four years and continue immediately to medical school. But after she didn’t get a key science course one semester, she decided to slow down her pace by a year and enjoy college more.

It’s especially difficult for science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors to graduate in four years, Berrios added, because they have to take specific classes, perhaps offered only once a year, in sequence. She said it creates a culture where no one expects to graduate in four years.

“I personally only know of one person,” she said. The delays are so common they even become a source of bonding: “It’s like, ‘I totally understand. What class was it hard for you to get?’ 

David Lopez, president of the California State Students Association, participated in developing the graduation initiative. He said the university must change students’ assumptions about what is possible, even in small ways – like banners on his CSU East Bay campus for the start of classes this year that read “Welcome Freshmen” instead of “Welcome Class of 2020.”

“We’ve accepted that we’re graduating – we just don’t know when,” he said. “It might be four, five, six years.”

The issue has been of growing interest at the Capitol. The budget this year included a $35 million incentive for CSU to adopt higher graduation targets. Gov. Jerry Brown also signed a package of legislation last week, the same day CSU formally adopted its new initiative, aimed at helping students transfer from a community college or graduate faster.

“These bills, coupled with today’s action from the CSU trustees, create conditions that allow students to timely graduate and avoid the burden of extra tuition,” Brown said in a statement.

Among them was Senate Bill 412, creating a “promise program” that will provide students with priority registration and additional advising if they commit to taking 30 units annually, enough to graduate in four years.

Its author, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, is a former Brown appointee on the CSU board of trustees who says the university has never given graduation rates the attention they deserve. Historically, the rate of freshmen finishing in four years has been even lower than the current 19 percent.

Glazer said the new graduation initiative is an “excellent restart” compared to targets announced last year that included a 24 percent four-year rate by 2025. But he would like to see CSU adopt more accountability measures for reaching its goal.

“Excuses were given that somehow our student body was nontraditional and should not be held to the same standard as the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s completely false. It’s a narrative that has been used to justify poor performance.”

Not everyone at CSU is crazy about the university’s new focus.

Jennifer Eagan, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents CSU instructors, said political pressure is causing the university to obsess over “one tiny measure of student success among many others.”

“There’s an implication that any student who hasn’t finished in four years has failed somehow,” she said. “We do well with comparable institutions on six-year graduation rates, and that speaks to who our students are.”

Eagan said creating incentives for students to graduate faster does not address the real reasons for their delays. Many students have challenging life circumstances, she said, and the university does not have the resources to provide enough advising and class offerings.

“I don’t think innovative programs are going to be transformative of really deep problems,” she said.

At a symposium in Long Beach last week, representatives from campuses across the system gathered to share strategies that have worked for them, from administrative shifts to philosophical changes in instruction.

Fresno State has introduced a scholarship for students who have between one and three classes left to graduate at the end of spring semester that pays for them to finish in summer school, which is not covered by financial aid.

CSU Northridge has seen more of its students passing remedial math after integrating workshops into the course that teach students how to change their response to failure and reduce test anxiety. Remedial classes are not offered for credit and can therefore become a roadblock to progressing toward a degree.

At CSU Los Angeles, where the student population has grown by a third in the last five years, the campus undertook a comprehensive review of its class schedule last year to make sure space wasn’t sitting open and unused at prime times when more courses could be offered.

“We’re hemmed in on three sides by freeways. We don’t have anywhere to grow,” said Amy Bippus, vice provost for planning and budget. “So we’ve got to get more bang for our buck in the classrooms.”

CSU Dominguez Hills is expanding a retention program for underprepared students that has kept 15 to 20 percent more students from dropping out between their first and second years. The program, which includes leadership development and supplemental instruction from peers who have already taken the classes they are enrolled in, is meant to foster a greater sense of integration on campus.

“A lot of them did not feel connected to campus. They didn’t feel they belonged,” said William Franklin, vice president of student affairs. “A lot of them made the choice to leave.”

Graduation and retention teams embedded in each of CSU Fullerton’s eight colleges use a data program to track students’ progress and the advising they receive.

Leading up to the start of the school year, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics identified 70 students on track to graduate this year that were not enrolled. After reaching out to all of them to find out why, they were able to help 35 sort out their problems and return to school after all.

“This is not easy work,” President Mildred García said. “They are saving the lives of 50 percent of the students they asked to come back.”

Nelsen said he has made it a “moral mission” to boost graduation since arriving at Sacramento State last year. The current four-year rate of 9 percent is among the lowest in the CSU system; he hopes to raise it to 30 percent by 2025.

Like every campus, Sacramento State is employing a variety of strategies, including working with 250 local high schools to institute fourth-year math and English classes designed by the university to help seniors bridge to college and avoid remediation.

The “Finish in Four” pledge, introduced this year, provides benefits such as discounted intersession tuition if students commit to taking 30 units per year. Nelsen said 62 percent of freshmen signed up, nearly tripling the rate of freshmen enrolled in at least 15 units their first semester compared to just two falls ago.

But he is proudest of the Smart Planner, an online program that allows students to track how their degrees are progressing and get suggestions for what classes to take next.

It also enables departments to see which of their courses are most in demand and plan accordingly. This fall, Sacramento State shifted some of its budget away from maintenance and equipment purchases to add dozens of classes equivalent to 10,000 additional seats.

“That’s the moral imperative,” Nelsen said. “We didn’t know what classes our students needed. We just didn’t know.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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