Going for the ‘ouch’ on Cal State graduation rates

Communications studies major Slynar Zelee smiles after degrees were conferred during a Sacramento State graduation ceremony in 2012.
Communications studies major Slynar Zelee smiles after degrees were conferred during a Sacramento State graduation ceremony in 2012. Sacramento Bee file

Everyone knows that the Cal State schools are the workhorses of California’s public university system. Nearly 400,000 students are enrolled at the 23 California State University campuses, which last year awarded more than 105,000 bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

That said, everyone increasingly knows something else, too: Cal State graduation rates are nowhere near what they should be.

A chart in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget summary said it all: Less than 20 percent of full-time CSU freshmen graduate in four years, despite concerted efforts to help struggling students. Cal State San Luis Obispo, which has the highest four-year graduation rate in the system, still gets less than half of its full-time students out in four years.

At most other campuses, the numbers are far worse, and nowhere near the 34 percent national average for public universities.

At Sacramento State, the four-year graduation rate is a jaw-dropping 9 percent, according to the governor’s figures. At Cal State L.A., it’s 6 percent, and 5 percent at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Cal State has a challenging student body. Many students, if not most, are the first in their families to attend college, and 80 percent are on financial aid. Looking only at full-time undergrads skews the picture, since more than half of CSU students are part-timers and community college transfers, who tend to do better. And many have been woefully underprepared in public high schools. At Dominguez Hills, 80 percent of freshmen need remediation in English and math.

Cal State has been working on graduation rates for some years now. At this week’s board of trustees meeting, Chancellor Timothy White noted with pride that CSU’s current initiative has deployed more tenure track faculty, online classes and additional tutoring.

In 2009, graduating in even six years was a triumph for most CSU students. Now, White said, the six-year graduation rate is 57 percent, three points higher than the target set that year, when CSU’s most recent initiative started.

And that’s nice. But what four-year university brags about improving the chance that your kid will only take two extra years to make it to commencement?

We understand CSU’s sensitivity. But as one trustee put it Thursday, citing the four-year numbers: “You look at this and you can only say ‘ouch.’ 

More must be done, at every level. One of the most striking figures shown to the trustees on Thursday was a breakdown of graduation rates among freshmen who entered CSU without sufficient preparation in English and math.

Students who had learned to do college-level math and English in high school were four times likelier to graduate in four years than students who needed remediation. That’s an obvious memo to California’s K-12 school system. Some campuses are coordinating with local school districts already. More should follow. The phase-in of Common Core curriculum also should help.

Lawmakers need to maintain funding for remediation and increase support for more intensive mentoring and advising. Conditioning aid on frequent one-on-one meetings with advisers might go a long way toward keeping at-risk students on track.

And policymakers shouldn’t forget the students who don’t finish in four years simply because, for whatever reason, they lacked the energy or the time to take the requisite 15 credits per semester, and settled for the 12-credit minimum required to maintain federal financial aid.

To that end, state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, wants to offer incentives to otherwise capable undergraduates to finish in four years and make room for new students. That alone would help solve one nagging problem – the 30,000 or so qualified CSU applicants who are turned away each year because of limits on funding and space.

Getting every Cal State student to a degree in four years may be a distant dream. Five-year rates are probably a more reasonable and compassionate focus.

But the governor is right to go for the “ouch” in this situation. Getting four-year graduation rates out of the single digits at Sac State shouldn’t pass as an accomplishment.