They did it: California students who graduated from state colleges in four years

June 3, 2018

Chelsie Orbasé recently graduated from Sacramento State in four years.

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Chelsie Orbasé showed some of the warning signs that keep fellow Sacramento State students from graduating in four years. After all, she switched majors, failed a few classes and worked a lot of hours at jobs off and on campus.

But despite such circumstances that tend to delay students from finishing on time, the Vallejo resident recently donned her cap and gown and received her bachelor’s degree in a ceremony four years after she started at the school as a freshman. And in doing so, she is in a distinct minority at her university and much of the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system.

“It’s doable, it’s definitely doable,” Orbasé said of the four-year degree. “But it’s not easy. You do have to work for it.”

In her case, she was helped with some Advanced Placement credits from high school classes and summer courses at a community college during her university years. Plus the child development major often took a load of at least 15 academic credits at Sacramento State and had two part-time jobs. She quit her sorority when its activities demanded too much time away from studies and work.

In contrast, many freshman-year classmates did not take similar steps and most did not graduate with her. Last year, only 12.2 percent of full time students who entered Sacramento State as freshman in 2013 graduated in four years.  That was the third lowest rate among the 23 universities in the CSU system. (Sacramento State’s five year graduation rate was 26 percent and the six year 48 percent.) The still untallied numbers from this graduation season are expected to be higher but still far from what officials hope the rates will be after reforms take hold across the system under what is called the Graduation Initiative plan.

Across the CSU system, the four-year graduation rate among students who entered as full-time freshman averaged 23 percent last year; 59 percent finished within six years. The Graduation Initiative, which began two years ago, seeks to bolster that to 40 percent for four years and 70 percent for six years by 2025. (That still would lag the University of California’s recent rates of 64 percent earning a bachelor’s degree within four years and 85 percent within six.)

Some progress has been made; the CSU system’s four-year rate rose four points between 2015 and 2017.  But much work remains ahead.

Now, not enough CSU students “have that mindset to finish in four years,” said Orbasé. As part of the campaign to change that, she worked on campus as a “Student Success Ambassador” mentoring others with a new online planning tool that helps map out future classes, simplifies course registration and offers alternatives to overcrowded classes.

Kei Ann Oliva

Chelsie Orbasé at Sacramento State graduation.

Four-year-graduates like her are role models for what the CSU system aims to replicate on a big scale with the initiative over the next seven years. So EdSource reached out to newly minted CSU graduates who finished in four years and asked them how they achieved that goal and what advice they had for younger students.

Most urged a full load of 15 credits a term as often as possible while also turning to counselors for academic advice. Typically, a CSU bachelor’s degree requires a total of at least 120 units, with certain of those classes specified for a student’s major. So if student takes four years- or eight semesters- that would translate into at least 15 credits a semester.

The graduates noted that students may be forced to stay in college longer when they can’t get the courses they need. They said students should not be discouraged if they are at first blocked from enrolling in an overcrowded class they need and to try to gain admission through formal and informal manners such as beseeching the professor.

They suggest finishing some AP classes in high school and scoring well on their exams to earn college credits. Taking a few summer session classes, possibly at a low-cost community colleges, is another recommendation.

But they also talked about determination that goes beyond credit hours and test scores. Many said they simply wanted to finish in four years and felt internal and external pressure to do so.

For example, recent Cal State Dominguez Hills graduate Daniel Molio’o said he understands how money problems and the need to support children slowed or ended former classmates’ college education.  (Only 8 percent of Dominguez Hills students who had entered as full-time freshmen graduated in four years in 2017; 43 percent did within six years.) But he recently finished in four years despite some family financial troubles, working several jobs and switching majors from psychology to theater studies.

Molio’o, who entered the university in a summer remedial program, said that a counselor had told him to go slow, with just 12 credits a term and to aim for five years like many classmates. He recalled arguing with her and responding that: “I don’t care what your statistics say about it. I’m going to finish in four.” He started with 12 units his first term but then jumped to 15 and sometimes as much as 18, without having to pay any extra tuition.  

Dylan Del Moral

Daniel Molio’o finished Cal State Dominguez Hills on time.

“I struggled the first time I tried it,” he said of taking 15 units “It was tough and a whole lot more to worry about. But when I look back, it definitely gave me more discipline, definitely made me more serious about my education.” But while course schedules don’t make that easy, he urged students to be flexible with their time, taking less popular early morning or evening classes if need be as he did. “If the end goal is to get past that finish line in four years, it’s achievable,” said Molio’o, 21, whose jobs included working as an adviser for the Male Success Alliance, which aid young men of color to pursue and persist in college.

With its current emphasis on faster graduations, counselors throughout CSU are being retrained to no longer encourage 12 units.  “We are having to change a culture where that was the case. But we don’t want that message now,” said Dianne F. Harrison, president of Cal State Northridge. “Not every single student can graduate in four years, but more can and that’s what we are shooting for,” she said in a recent interview.

Harrison said the common factor among students who finish in four years turns out not to be whether they must hold down off-campus jobs. It’s their attitude about their education. “I think it’s the drive, I think it’s the grit, the persistence. I think it’s a recognition that they are actually going to be saving money by finishing in four years,” Harrison said.

Her campus will be reaching out more to parents to help them understand the benefits of faster graduation. CSU’s system wide Graduation Initiative is, among other things, adding classes, dropping placement exams, changing and easing some requirements, pushing students to take heavier academic loads and replacing non-credit remedial courses with for-credit classes.

Sacramento State, for example, now asks incoming students to pledge to try to finish in four years.  That campus now sees about 50 percent of its students ending freshmen year with a full load of 30 credits, a jump from about just 20 percent five years ago, according to “graduation czar” James Dragna, whose formal title is executive director for university initiatives and student success. Among other things, Sacramento State is offering summer school tuition discounts that grow larger as students advance through their programs.

While acknowledging the family and work responsibilities many students face, Dragna said he still expected it will become the “norm that students finish close to four or five years.”

Heather Friedman Photography

Jodie Fredericks recently graduated from Cal State Northridge in four years.

Jodie Fredericks, 22, recently finished Cal State Northridge as a communication studies major in four years and urged students to take more than 12 units a term. “I wanted to stick to four years. I didn’t want to make my parents have to pay for another semester of school that didn’t need to happen,” said Fredericks, who grew up in Stockton.

She said she was fortunate to receive enough financial support from her family that she was able to take unpaid internships and did not have to work long hours at paid jobs. So while she recognizes the difficulties other students face in juggling work and school, she said: “If you are someone like me who comes from a privileged situation, there is no excuse for not getting out in four years.” (Cal State Northridge, four-year graduation rate was 15 percent last year and 51 percent finished within six years.)

Before Fredericks arrived at Northridge, she had earned six Advanced Placement credits and also completed an online Cal State math class. Still, overcrowded classes and unwieldy course registration often threatened her four-year goal. One semester, the automated registration process allowed her to enroll in just one of the classes she needed for graduation. Refusing to accept that outcome, she talked to department administrators and eventually got into the other required courses. Since not everyone will be able to do that, she said the CSU system needs to dramatically increase the number of courses it offers.

“It’s really challenging that there are not enough classes and not enough teachers,” she said.

Annalyssa Ramirez started Fresno State four years ago without any Advanced Placement credit but knew she wanted to finish on time. She achieved that at a campus with a four-year completion rate of 16 percent and a six-year rate of 56 percent. “I didn’t want to stay in school longer than necessary,” she said.

Jorge Ramirez

Annalyssa Ramirez recently graduated from Fresno State in four years.

Ramirez, 22, said she was fortunate since she received financial aid for tuition and lived at her family’s Fresno home without having to worry about rent bills. “That really benefited me,” the recent graduate recalled.

Still she faced challenges with registration problems, class scheduling conflicts or course cancellations. So while a couple of semesters she took 12 units, another time she piled on 18 and also enrolled in two summer classes. She advised younger students not to waste time on “any patty cake” classes –that seem like fun and easy – but don’t fulfill a graduation requirement. And meeting with counselors is important “to make sure you are on track,” said Ramirez, an English major who now is considering a career in college counseling.

 “They have to push hard because college isn’t really easy if you want to meet your goals,” she said.

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