A false promise on graduation rates

CSU chancellor Timothy White talks with students and staff at Sacramento State University in May.
CSU chancellor Timothy White talks with students and staff at Sacramento State University in May. Sacramento Bee file

California has broken a lot of promises to its citizens who want access to a quality, low-cost college degree.

Now comes Senate Bill 412, dubbed “The California Promise,” that purports to help CSU undergraduates, including transfer students, complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years.

The problem is that this legislation, sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, will probably not help those most in need.

Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat and a former member of the California State University Board of Trustees, reintroduced a bill with new wording about supporting students who are first-generation and economically disadvantaged to graduate in four years if they pledge to take full course loads every term.

Yet those of us who teach at CSU campuses know that those are the very students whose life situations compel them to take longer than four years to graduate because they cannot combine full-time studies with work and family duties.

While such students are known as “nontraditional” students, it is more accurate to call them our “traditional” students, since most of them fit the typical CSU profile: first-generation or underrepresented minority or socioeconomically disadvantaged, or all of the above. They tend to be in their mid-20s and face obligations that more privileged, new high school graduates – from communities like Orinda – don’t usually carry in their backpacks.

The public university system, which used to be known for its almost free access but where tuition has risen astronomically, is now being judged by the norms of more privileged institutions whose students aren’t working 30 or 40 hours a week, as CSU students often must to pay the bills. And in these difficult economic times for working-class people, our students are supporting their families, not the other way around.

CSU students are making great progress toward their degrees but they are not taking a full course load every term. Not only is the current focus on four-year graduation rates short-sighted, it also reveals a failure of vision by the state’s academic and political leaders, who have given up on any real solutions for restoring full funding to the CSU.

Susan Gubernat is a professor of English at California State University, East Bay, and a member of the CSU Academic Senate. She can be contacted at