The campaign to improve graduation rates at the 23-campus California State University system has progressed even during the pandemic. But problems loom as the system grapples with more low-income freshmen dropping out.
About 19% of freshmen who received a federal Pell Grant in 2020 did not return for sophomore year, up from 15% the year before. Administrators say financial hardships during the pandemic and the switch to online classes hurt low-income students more than others, raising concerns about graduation rates a few years ahead.
The increased number of freshmen who dropped out temporarily or permanently is a “troublesome equity challenge,” according to Jeff Gold, the CSU system’s assistant vice chancellor for student success.
Gold said that might lead to a drop in graduation rates two or three years from now as those former freshmen move toward completion. The class that started in 2020 already was about 8% smaller than the year before.
“It certainly means that if we do nothing different and we do not act boldly, we can expect to have worse outcomes.” Gold said in a recent interview with EdSource. “We’re placing some big bets on how to better serve our students, recognizing that the last few years have been incredibly traumatic and acknowledging that learning loss happened even before they’ve arrived at our doorstep.”
The CSU, Gold emphasized, is working to bring those students back and get them on track, in part by giving them priority and financial assistance to take summer classes to recoup the time they lost. He also noted that CSU campuses increasingly use an early warning system of grades and attendance records to reach out to students in possible academic trouble and to offer them some advising and tutoring help.
Even with any temporary reversals, Gold said he is confident that the CSU system will be able to reach the goals of its Graduation Initiative 2025. So far, the four-year completion rate among freshmen across the system rose from 19% in 2015, before the initiative began, to 33% last year, with a goal of 40% by 2025. The six-year rate moved from 57% to 63%, targeting 70%. Those are systemwide numbers. Campuses show a wide variety of results and face different goals. For example, the six-year rate at CSU Los Angeles is 54%, compared with 77% at the more affluent San Diego State.
Another big challenge will be to close what are called “equity gaps,” the continuing trend that Black and Latino students graduate at significantly lower rates than white and Asians students across the system. Systemwide, 72% of Asian and white freshmen earned a degree in six years, compared with 58% of Latino and 50% of Black freshmen. However, several campuses have nearly erased such gaps, Gold said.
As EdSource reported in the first two parts of this series, other universities are using a variety of strategies to reduce those differences. Experts say the experiences of the University of South Florida and the University of Texas at San Antonio could be helpful to universities nationwide, including CSU. Gold said all CSU campuses are implementing some of the same reforms and programs.
Gold spoke recently with EdSource’s Larry Gordon and then responded to some follow-up questions via email. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why are the grad rates so varied among your campuses? And their 2025 goals are very different, too.
From Cal Poly Humboldt in the northernmost part of our state, to the centrally located Cal Maritime, to San Diego State University located 20 miles north of the Mexican border, our campuses are incredibly varied and diverse. As part of our Graduation Initiative 2025, we recognized this variation by establishing a group of national peer institutions for every CSU campus. We then benchmarked each CSU campus’s graduation rates against their national peers and set a target for each CSU in the top quartile. This process ensured that each campus had ambitious yet realistic goals to ground their student success efforts.
What tools or changes have been most effective in making progress on graduations?
We have really transformed the culture around the CSU to be student-first and student-centered. Ten years ago, graduation rates were not always at the top of the agenda of people working on the campuses and in the system office. And I can tell you definitively now: Most people not only know the numbers, but they’re also steeped in the numbers. They’ve changed their focus to really be intentional about student success. In terms of a specific resource, we have systemwide data tools that are now being used widely. CSU dashboards provide our faculty, staff and administrators with a detailed look at what’s happening in their classrooms and how they can leverage data to better support their students (to add tutoring or change teaching methods).
And what are the biggest barriers that keep students from finishing?
What keeps me up at night is concern about the pandemic’s effects on our students and our ability to support them above and beyond the academic side of the house. That includes food banks and emergency aid when they need it. Like other universities across the nation, the pandemic’s impact has been incredibly traumatic and especially debilitating for our most underserved students. … Over the past two years, CSU campuses have leveraged $12 million in federal Higher Education Emergency Relief funds to write off institutional student debt, greatly expand food pantry services and provide thousands of free laptops, iPads and Wi-Fi hot spots to our students.
What do you do for the students who have not returned to school?
One of our priorities is a coordinated return, reengage and reenrollment campaign. We’ve provided campuses with $3 million as they assemble teams tasked with doing everything possible to reenroll students who have left.
Why do equity gaps persist and some minority and low-income students still show lower graduation rates than other groups?
(There are) a variety of structural barriers. First-generation students face challenges navigating the university without the guidance of parents for whom these experiences are familiar. Low-income students commonly work multiple jobs to pay for tuition and cover food and housing needs. Perhaps more importantly, the culture in higher education is often unwelcoming for students of color and presents challenges for them to foster meaningful connections to the campus and obtain the social and academic support they need to thrive.
I recently visited the University of South Florida and the University of Texas at San Antonio, both of which have sharply cut equity gaps in graduation rates for Blacks and Latinos. Has any CSU campus done that? If so, how?
Several CSU campuses have nearly erased their equity gaps, including Cal State Long Beach, CSU Monterey Bay, Sacramento State, San Diego State, and Sonoma State. While there are important nuances, they all focus on programs, policies, pedagogies and support structures that benefit all students while providing a disproportionately positive lift to their most marginalized students.
What specifically can you do to help those students?
Part of our plan is to strategically expand our summer school and (winter) intersession course offerings to provide additional credit opportunities. Many campuses are providing summer session registration priority for specific groups of students including those who reenroll after withdrawing, those who have completed less than 30 units at the end of their first year, and those who need to complete just one or two courses to graduate. Some campuses are forgiving tuition for those programs and making sure these opportunities are readily available for their most underserved students to accumulate credit so that they can be on their way to graduation.
Florida strongly links some higher education funding to how well a campus does on such metrics as graduation rates. Governor Newsom’s revised budget last week proposed a compact with CSU and UC that would do something similar but apparently not quite as strict as Florida. Do you think linking graduation rates to funding would help?
I am heartened that the governor’s proposed compact is well aligned with the CSU’s top strategic priorities. The CSU’s graduation rate and equity gap goals are prominently featured. And unlike other performance-based models, the funding would be additive, meaning that the compact commits to maintaining the CSU’s base budget while providing opportunities for additional funds as we meet our goals.
Campuses are paying more attention to classes with a high number of D and F grades and withdrawals. When is a DFW rate bad enough to merit intervention?
Your question was: what’s the magic number that triggers action? We’re looking at this multidimensionally, to also consider whether the course is high-enrollment and whether there are pronounced equity gaps in outcomes. There may be a class where the overall nonpassing rates aren’t off-the-charts high, but we’re noticing that our students of color or low-income students are failing at disproportionately high rates. … There is no “one size fits all” model.
What can be done to improve those classes?
A critical first step is to identify the root cause. Some courses may have high failure rates because faculty grade on a curve which results in 25% of students failing every term. In others, the root cause may be pedagogy, resulting in low student engagement. To solve the problem, the proposed intervention must be closely aligned with the underlying root cause.
What else can the university do to help students finish?
We are committed to removing administrative barriers. … These barriers include things like unpaid parking tickets, library book fines and outstanding tuition payments — all of which may block a student from registering for classes or applying to graduate until they make the payment. For us to not graduate a student, because they owe us $25 is not being student-focused. We need to be judicious about collecting money that’s owed to us. For example, Cal Poly Pomona made the bold decision last term to temporarily allow all students with a financial hold to register for classes. There were a few thousand students who normally would not have been able to register, but the university allowed them to do so. The campus didn’t forgive the money owed, but they committed to identifying a more student-friendly mechanism to get payment rather than blocking registration and students’ path to graduation.
There’s been instability in the CSU leadership. (After just 13 months as chancellor, Joseph I. Castro resigned in February amid allegations that he mishandled sexual harassment complaints against a university official while Castro was president of Fresno State.) Can’t that affect the graduation initiative?
I don’t think so. … There will always be distractions. I would say a much bigger distraction was the pandemic. But through it all, we have remained singularly focused on achieving our student success and equity goals.
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