Cal State system pushes students to graduate in four years, improve low completion rates

August 25, 2016

A guide's button urges students to finish Sacramento State in four years, a rarity now.

A large banner that declared “Class of 2020” greeted incoming freshmen at a recent Sacramento State orientation session. Tour guides and administrators wore large green-and-white buttons with the logo “Ask me how to finish in four.”

At other universities, those might be minor symbols of a goal taken for granted – graduation within four years. But at Sacramento State and other California State University campuses, it represents an ambitious – and, as critics say, much overdue – mission aimed at improving dismal completion rates.

In recent years, less than 9 percent of first-time freshman at Sacramento State have graduated in four years and only 46 percent within six years, according to statewide statistics that put the campus near the bottom in the system.

Those rates “suck, and you can quote me on that,” said Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen.

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Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen at an orientation, stressing timely graduation.

Across the 418,000-student Cal State system, graduation rates have been improving with more attention paid to the issue. But the most recent completion averages for students who started as full-time freshmen were just 19 percent after four years and 57 percent by six years, with large differences among the 23 campuses and various ethnic groups.

Now, the California State University trustees are scheduled to adopt plans in September that would aim to dramatically boost those rates by 2025. For the system, the trustees are discussing preliminary targets as high as 35 percent for freshmen graduating in four years and as high as 70 percent by six years. Even higher targets are under consideration for transfer students.

A huge incentive for improvement is a $35 million state incentive grant payable only if the system adopts “coherent” plans by September to boost rates, with special emphasis on low-income students. Legislators made the money available under the rationale that the faster current students earn degrees, the more room for new students, easing funding demands.

University officials say the goals would be achieved through reforms in the student registration process, counseling, remedial courses and summer school, and by adding course sections.

The most recent completion averages for students who started as full-time freshmen were just 19 percent after four years and 57 percent by six years.

Many students at the Sacramento State orientation said they are willing to do their share if the university provides enough classes. In what officials described as an important emotional commitment, students were asked to take an online pledge to register for at least 30 units a year and meet with advisers twice a year. If they do, they will be given discounts and priority status for summer classes if they are needed. About 62 percent have signed the pledge so far this summer.

Amy Baker, an incoming freshman from Stockton and a biological sciences major, signed the pledge because she wants “to limit the amount of years I’m in college. I want to be able to get out and into the work force and start a job and get on with my life.” And she said she wants to avoid tuition costs of extra years.

Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

An online program asks students to sign a pledge to graduate from Sacramento State in four years.

At Sacramento State and other CSU campuses, a new online registration system is designed to help keep students on track with required classes, and more counseling will be available to address problems. Better computerized predictions will alert academic departments about demand for extra sections. Officials say faculty has been hired to ease overcrowded courses and majors.

CSU leaders acknowledge that success won’t be easy across the system. They note that large numbers of students are from low-income and immigrant families with no college experience, and many students must pass non-credit remedial classes. Plus, they say, the system is still recovering from the recession’s budget cuts that reduced the number of courses offered, making it harder to get classes, especially required ones in high demand.

But the university deserves recognition for its strengthened intent to improve “the deplorably low” rates and no longer excuse them, according to Lande Ajose, director of California Competes, a research and policy organization that focuses on workforce and higher education.

“It is still difficult but they are rowing in the right direction,” Ajose said.

Among the challenges, she said, will be shifting the emphasis in teaching from mass lectures to helping individual students.

The graduation targets expected to be approved by the system trustees “are ambitious but attainable through an increased investment by the state, intentional work by our campuses and collaboration with our K-12 and community college partners, students and families,” said Loren Blanchard, Cal State executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

At 28,000-student Sacramento State,” President Nelsen said the “Finish in Four” campaign represents a change in campus culture away from a more leisurely approach. Students will be “challenged in a way I think they are capable of being challenged,” he said.

Nelsen addressed 270 freshmen and some parents who attended a recent orientation, one of two dozen such gatherings held throughout the summer. He urged them to take the pledge and warned that each additional year of college and living expenses costs about $23,000, plus lost wages.

“How many of you have got an extra $23,000 in your back pocket right now?” he asked.

Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Incoming freshman Harkamal Dhaliwal at orientation for Sacramento State’s class of 2020.

To put completion rates front and center, Nelsen recently appointed a so-called “graduation czar,” Jim Dragna, whose formal title is executive director of university initiatives and student success.

While the pledges may seem cosmetic to outsiders, Dragna insists that taking 15 units a semester from the start “seems to be very important in setting up expectations and accomplishments along the way.” Over the past two years, the share of freshmen registering for at least 15 units more than doubled, to 58 percent last fall.

Still, a major hurdle is that about 55 percent of new students must take some remedial classes, Dragna said. Plans call for more students to avoid that through approved courses in their senior year of high school and for more campus classes that combine credit-bearing and remedial work.

Parents are in the formula, too. Beth Lesen, Sacramento State’s associate vice president for student engagement and success, cautioned parents at the orientation not to tell their children to ease into college with a light course load. Students should “get accustomed” to a heavy workload. “Otherwise,” she said, “that is setting them up for a bad scene later.”

Appealing to their wallets, she noted that Cal State has two tuition levels – one for up to six units a semester and another for 6.1 and above. So taking 12 rather than 15 credits, she said, “is like passing up a bargain in the store. You don’t turn down free things as a matter of course in your life.”

Harkamal Dhaliwal, an incoming freshman from Manteca, said he feels certain he can maintain the pledge. The son of immigrants from India and the first in his family to attend an American college, he said he may attend nursing school after his undergraduate degree and does not want to dawdle.

“If you have the right mindset and determination, you can do it,” he said.

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