Graduation rates for the entire 23-campus California State University rose again slightly this year as the sprawling system tried to remove roadblocks to completion, hire more faculty and speed students along. While CSU remains far from some of its ambitious goals for 2025, officials insist progress is on track.
Even with a rise of two percentage points over last year, only 27.5 percent of those who began as freshmen graduated within four years, according to preliminary statistics released Thursday. Their six-year graduation rate was 62.1 percent, up one percentage point from 2018.
James Minor, the CSU’s assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence said he was “optimistic” the system would meet its 2025 goals of graduating 40 percent of freshmen within four years and 70 percent within six years.
“So long as we have the commitment from our leadership and so long as we have good partners in state legislature, I don’t see any reasons why we wouldn’t.”
By the end of this school year, the state will have invested $225 million overall in CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025, the campaign to sharply bolster graduation rates.
CSU Chancellor Timothy White said in a statement that the initiative has produced significant progress since it began four years ago. “However, while CSU students have greater opportunities than ever before, we can — and must — do even more,” he said.
To reach the targets, thousands of courses are being added, especially in high-demand graduation or major requirements, and academic counselors are being hired. Campuses are also pushing students to take at least 15 credits a semester so they can finish more quickly.
Among the most significant changes to reach that target was the elimination last year of non-credit remedial courses in English and math, replaced by for-credit classes that offer more tutoring and time. The impact of that on graduations won’t be felt for another couple of years, but it will be strong as the 2025 deadline approaches, administrators say.
This year’s graduation statistics for individual CSU campuses were not released Thursday and are not expected to be made public until November. Last year’s figures showed great disparities among the campuses and even some backsliding at four campuses. For example, the four-year rates for students who began as freshmen ranged from 9.5 percent at Cal State Los Angeles to 52.5 percent at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. And 11 campuses graduated less than 20 percent of the students who entered as freshmen four years prior.
CSU leaders, however, stressed improvements over the long haul and said that small percentage changes at a university enrolling 428,000 undergraduates mean many more students graduating on time. Participating in a graduation initiative symposium in Sacramento, they noted that the four-year rate has gained nearly eight percentage points since the efforts began and the six-year rate has risen about five points since 2015.
“If you look at the distance we’ve traveled, I think that it’s pretty remarkable,” said Minor. “One percentage point improvement equates to thousands of students. I know some people may think of that as marginal or incremental but if you speak to those families, they wouldn’t think it is as inconsequential. It’s a big deal for thousands of students who cross the commencement stage. That is a game changer for their families.”
Transfer students showed gains too. The new statistics show that 40.4 percent of transfer students finished in two years, up from 38 percent last year and 30.6 percent in 2015. (The goal is 45 percent.) The four-year rate for transfers this year was 77.5 percent, compared to 77.1 percent last year and 73 percent in 2015. (The target is 85 percent.)
The $150 million provided by the state budget over the past two years has funded 4,300 additional classes, among other initiatives. For the current school year, the state budget provides $75 million for CSU efforts to improve graduation rates by hiring more professors and counselors, bolster mental health services and other measures.