California State University awarded a record number of bachelor’s degrees last year, amid an ongoing push to double its four-year graduation rate.
The university announced Wednesday that its students earned 105,431 bachelor’s degrees between summer 2017 and spring 2018, an increase of 7 percent from the year before. Graduation rates also climbed to their highest levels ever: More than 25 percent of first-time freshmen finished in four years, while nearly 38 percent of transfer students completed their degree in two years.
“We’ve moved the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by our students in a dramatic way,” Chancellor Timothy White said in an interview. “We are here to serve Californians and here to serve California’s future, and we are making good progress.”
Facing mounting public concern over rising tuition debt and political pressure to get more students through faster, CSU three years ago set new graduation targets at its 23 campuses.
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The key goals are to get 40 percent of freshmen out in four years and 70 percent done within six years by 2025. When the initiative began, the four-year and six-year rates were just 19 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
CSU has gotten more state money to open more sections of popular courses and to expand advising. This fall, the university also eliminated remedial classes that earn students no credit toward graduation.
While CSU still has a long way to go to meet its graduation targets, White said the system is on pace. He added that he is “really gratified” that the university is contributing more degrees to close what is projected to be a shortfall of more than 1 million college graduates in California economy by 2030.
Students are getting the message. At Sacramento State this week, there was widespread familiarity with the new “finish in four” mantra.
The campus, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the CSU, has raised its four-year completion to 14 percent from 9 percent since the initiative began.
Talia Garcia, 19, a second-year criminal justice major, said she wasn’t worried about graduating in four years when she arrived on campus last year. But she changed her mind after orientation, which put a major emphasis on the idea. Now she is using an online program provided by Sacramento State to create a four-year study plan and track her progress.
“I don’t want to be stuck here forever,” she said.
Many students still face significant barriers to completing their studies faster, however, such as demanding work schedules to pay for school or not being able to get the classes they need. Several said they had no intention of trying to graduate in four years because they were still waiting to get into popular degree programs, including nursing and graphic design.
Abdullah Jan, 19, is in his first year at Sacramento State and intends to study civil engineering. He said choosing classes for the first time was a chaotic process and he was not able to enroll in one of the introductory courses he needed as a prerequisite for more advanced classes. Now he is trying to get through as many his general education requirements as possible and hoping to make up the time later.
“If I had this class right now, I would be very confident that I’d be able to graduate in four,” he said.
Jennifer Eagan, president of the California Faculty Association, said she was encouraged that more students are finishing their degrees faster.
Her union, which represents CSU instructors, raised concerns when the graduation initiative was announced that it might focus too much on the students who are easiest to help. Eagan said they will continue to push the university to hire more full-time faculty and other support staff, such as mental health counselors, that benefit all students.
“It takes a lot of things to get things through in four years. It takes a lot of support, and a lot of luck, and a lot of economic factors,” she said. “How can we genuinely support students through and not just focus on those numbers?”