by Andrew Doran
As a new school year kicks off, there is always a lot to be excited about. New insights, friends, projects and learning more about life are all on the table. Students across the California State University system are ready to move towards their end-goal of graduation.
However, what a lot of students do not know is how CSU is making a massive push to get more students out of the door quicker.
In 2016, all the CSU schools made a goal to get more students to graduate in a more timely fashion. According to the CSU website, the Graduation Initiative 2025 was created to “…ensure that all students have the opportunity to be successful and graduate according to their personal goals, positively impacting their future and producing additional graduates to power California and the nation.”
As a whole, CSU wants to increase graduation rates in four different classifications. They include the following: freshmen four-year rate, freshmen six-year rate, transfer two-year rate and transfer four-year rate. CSU also wants the equity gaps for underrepresented minorities and Pell-eligible students to come down to zero.
When the Graduation Initiative 2025 campaign began, the CSU system as a whole was having a tough time getting students to graduate within a timely manner. Only 19% of freshmen were graduating within four years and only 31% of transfer students were getting their diplomas within two. While the graduation percentage was higher for both six-year freshmen and four-year transfers, 57% and 73% respectively, they are still not acceptable percentages.
“More than 60% of our entering freshmen were told they were behind before they had even begun,” said Michelle Hawley, Ph.D. Associate Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at Cal State LA in a YouTube video posted by CSU. “They were required to take coursework that did not count for their degrees.”
With the Graduation Initiative 2025 campaign, however, graduation rates are supposed to go up, some even by 23%. CSU claims they will be able to reach their goals by hiring more tenure-track faculty to teach additional courses, redesigning courses that have a high-failure rate and increasing the number of online courses. There are many implications and changes that are needed throughout the CSU system in order to reach the goals.
With an eye on what the CSU system wants, it is important to understand how the Graduation Initiative 2025 is going to affect students at CI. At the moment, CI is actually one of the universities that are leading the charge towards meeting the various graduation goals, especially for transfers.
The overarching goal is to get students to graduation in a timely manner. For CI, this means that the University is going to be looking at graduating 40% of students that arrive on campus this year in a four-year span. This number jumps up to a 67% graduation rate for students that end up staying for six years. With transfer students, CI has a goal of graduating 54% of students within two years and then a whopping 78% of students within four years.
According to the CSU dashboard that tracks all the CSU system schools on how they are reaching their goals, CI currently has mixed results. CI is making good progress with transfer student graduation goals, with both being rated as making good progress on their goals. Unfortunately, CI is lagging in the freshmen rate for graduation. Both the four-year and six-year goals are classified as limited progress. The main issue is the four-year freshman graduation rate, where CI is 18.5% behind its goal.
“That’s where we have the most work to do,” said Dr. Richard Yao, the Vice President of Student Affairs, referencing the four-year graduation rate with incoming freshmen. “Without a doubt, where we need the most work is with first-time full-time (students).”
Regardless of how CI has done so far, the new incoming class is where CI and all CSU system schools are going to be judged.
According to Yao, the top priority for the Department of Student Affairs this coming year is the Graduation Initiative 2025. The department is going to be focusing on a lot of different data points in order to figure out the best way to connect with students in order to keep them engaged with the University and on track to meet a four-year graduation goal.
“We have really great data now. Last year, that was our top priority, gathering really good data for Student Affairs…We have preliminary data now indicating that participation in Student Affairs has a positive impact on student success metrics, particularly in retention,” said Yao.
In order to help with retention, the Academic Advising office has been moved under the Department of Student Affairs at CI. The thought is that this move will help streamline the process of advising and will make it easier to connect with the students. There are a lot of ideas on how to connect better with students, but one of the main ways might be a mandatory meeting with the students’ advisors at least once per semester. “I would love to see mandatory advising for the first two years,” said Yao. There are still items that need to be completed before that becomes a reality, mainly that CI still needs to hire more advising staff in order to meet their goal, but it is something that CI is aiming to complete by the spring semester.
With this initiative, if students are going to finish their degrees in four years, they will need to take at least 15 credit hours per semester. This is likely where students no longer see eye to eye with the administration and faculty. “It’s simple math. They need to be taking 30 credits per year…We need to increase the percentage of students who are completing 30 units by the end of their first year and that’s an important benchmark,” said Yao.
Dr. Sean Kelly, the program chair for the Political Science program, agrees. “College is supposed to last four years. We’re not actually asking people to speed up in that regard.”
Yao concedes that the student body of CI is different from a majority of student bodies across the nation. “The narrative that I heard in some pockets of the institution was that our student body is a little bit different,” said Yao. “They’re working full-time; they have childcare, other family or caregiver responsibilities; they’re working off-campus. And if we’re pushing 15 credits, could we be inadvertently doing harm to them?”
Yao argues that a different type of mentality is needed, though. “I didn’t think that (mindset) was very strengths-based. I thought that was a deficit-based approach to viewing our student body and I had a problem with that. I want to look at it from an asset or strengths-based perspective.”
Even though Yao and Kelly think that students need to be taking more classes in order to graduate on time, students have a different viewpoint. The reason that students do not and cannot take 15 credits every semester is because of the amount of work it takes now to pay for college.
“I would say that you might lose focus and (overload) yourself to the point where you won’t be able to do the best at whatever position you put yourself in because you’re overloading yourself,” said Bryan Montes, a junior business major. Montes, who works at the information desk at the Student Union Building, is wondering how he is going to balance all the aspects of his job while going to school. “I’m going to find difficulties trying to find time to do homework and have a social life, I guess.”
That’s a fair concern among students at CI. If the University is pushing to get more students to take classes, won’t the GPA fall since there is a lot more on the student’s plate? It makes sense on paper that they are going to give a less time to all their classes the more they take on. According to Yao, that way of thinking is wrong.
“That’s the beauty of having institutional data. We compared first-time full-time students taking 15-plus units to 12 to 14…What we found was that there was no negligible difference,” said Yao.
Yao went on to explain that students who are involved in the University, whether through programs, clubs or other organizations, and then take a full-time load of classes end up having about the same GPA as those who only take four classes. “In fact, sometimes those that were taking 15 or more units were doing better,” said Yao.
In order to get more students to graduate in a timely manner, CSU has proposed to make more classes available for students. CSU has stated on their website that they want to hire more tenure-track faculty, as well as create more classes, especially online, in order to have more options for students.
While the administration is trying to find a way to meet the CSU goal, the professors of CI have mixed emotions about the initiative. While they agree that it is important to get students in and out of the classroom, they do not fully agree on creating more online classes. Kelly said that online classes are great, but they are not the same as being in the classroom. “As a general rule, I’m not in favor of it,” said Kelly. “We’re not there with online teaching, in part because it’s difficult.”
Dr. Luis Sanchez, an Associate Professor in the Sociology program agrees. “One thing that I’m initially concerned with, and not to say there’s not a way to deal with it, but it’s the instant feedback. There’s in-person classes where I ask a clarification question when I’m going through the material and they may not be saying that they don’t understand it, but the look in their eyes…allows me to go back to frame the question a different way or review the material.”
Both professors mentioned that not only is it hard to teach an online class, but that students really struggle to have the motivation to do the work that is required. “Students are not doing the work. They are not watching the videos, they are not doing the activities, and then they are getting to the exam and they are not doing well,” said Kelly. “This is not because they are stupid; it’s because this is a really tough way to learn, and most of us just don’t have the skills to do it.” Sanchez agreed with Kelly. “It’s not necessarily from students not grasping the content, but not putting in that effort of doing something.”
The political science program is undertaking a comparison program this year to see how students who are taking a class online compare to students who are in the classroom. Kelly is really interested in seeing what the data says only because there are still so many variables. Regardless, he relented that he would be in favor of online classes once the data backs it up. “I won’t be against online teaching once somebody shows me that the learning outcomes are just as good. Whether it’s online or in person, both of those students turn out exactly the same. When someone can show me that, then I’ll be for online education,” said Kelly.
Even with the push towards online, Kelly made a point about why being in a classroom is so important in developing skills outside of the class material. “From a student’s perspective, let’s imagine somebody who has completed their entire degree online. They never really had to interact with other students or the faculty. They haven’t really worked in a group. Now we’re going to send them out to go to work in the real world, where they didn’t have the benefit of working together, in community, on campus. How effective are they going to be in the workplace? At some point, you’re going to have to work with other people.”
Sanchez went on further to talk about how being on campus is not only good for students but beneficial for everyone. “I am someone that is on campus pretty much all throughout the week… It’s important to be on campus for the students,” explained Sanchez. “It’s not just for things related to that particular class, but being on campus (is beneficial) if a student wants to meet with you to talk about a possible letter of recommendation, or being available in your office (is important) if a student wants to talk about potential research opportunities.”
In addition to CSU adding more online classes, they are also looking to change classes that have a high rate of “D” grades/ “F” grades/or Withdrawals (DFW). CSU claims that if they are able to get the rate down, then more students are going to be able to continue with their education and not drop out of the university entirely.
Within CI, seven of the top 10 classes that students end up dropping out of are classes in the 100 level. These are classes that are prerequisites that allow students to move onto upper level classes or are required as a pillar of CI in order to graduate.
While revamping classes that have a high DFW rate makes sense, Kelly argues that fixing the DFW rate will end up becoming an endless cycle of change. “There is always going to be some course that has the highest DFW rate. Sociology will get better and all of a sudden we got another class here (that is higher),” said Kelly, who was referring to Sociology 100 being in the top 10 of DFW rate at CI.
While there is a lot that still needs to be done in order for CI to change their classes that are failing the most, there have been some changes, especially in the math program. Some of the remedial math courses have been eliminated so students don’t take classes that do not count towards graduation. According to CSU data that was released in February, almost 7,800 students throughout the system have been able to pass a higher-level math class, which ends up counting towards the student’s degree.
Even if CSU and CI want to change classes that have a high DFW rate, the professors are left in the dark about the changes that are going to come about. “What type of restarting will we need for things in the curriculum and also outside the curriculum? I don’t know what those are yet,” said Sanchez.
On a CSU PDF that is available on their website, CSU claims that students that are able to graduate early or on-time can save and make a lot more money than floundering at a CSU school. Based on a 16-week semester, if a person graduates on time, they will save over $3,000 in college-based expenses and will be able to earn around a $12,000 salary, depending on their full-time job. In the end, this means within a year of a student graduating, they will gain almost $30,000 based on the semester system. This does not account for the summer and winter breaks though, so the total financial gain would be higher. CSU calls this good for the economy both in local communities and for the state at large.
CSU is not trying to get students out faster, but back at what is perceived to be the normal four-year rate. “When I think about it, there’s a speed issue. And if we are simply talking about speed, getting people in and out as fast as possible, then it’s something that I can’t get behind, because that’s not the point,” said Kelly. “The bottom line, we’re talking money.”
At a Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium at San Diego State University, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White spoke about why this initiative is so important, especially when it comes to the financial aspect of getting students to graduate faster. “We are driving California’s future, and therefore we are driving America’s future. The result is transformative. The sooner a student graduates, the sooner they can secure a job or go on to an advanced degree,” said White. “And for many new alumni, this opens doors to helping their families, helping to secure a more financially stable future, to build savings accounts sooner and to jump-start their careers.”
Not only does CSU want students to make money once they leave their universities, they are putting a fair amount of money from the yearly budget towards the initiative. According to the 2018-2019 operating budget booklet that CSU publishes each year, $75 million has been set aside in order to help the universities reach their goals. This money is supposed to help the universities hire more faculty as well as adding class infrastructure.
The Graduation Initiative 2025 is one of the boldest goals that CSU has ever had. Even though CSU claims on their website that they are on-track to meet the 40% graduation rate for freshmen, they are still 15 percentage points below that threshold with six years to go.
Thankfully, universities will not be punished if they don’t reach their goals. In an emailed statement provided by Hazel Kelly, the Public Affairs Manager of the CSU Chancellor’s office, she wrote, “We are confident that the CSU campuses are working diligently to reach the ambitious Graduation Initiative 2025 goals, but there are no penalties for a campus that doesn’t meet its goals. The Chancellor’s Office conducts annual progress reviews with campus presidents and regularly shares relevant data to ensure that we are moving in the right direction. Graduation Initiative 2025 operates under the moral imperative to better serve our students.”
Even without a punishment, CI is still going to work hard in order to make the 2025 goals. “What I want this to illustrate for students is that we are truly committed to your success. There are thousands of students who go to college every year but don’t finish. Right? This is a wake-up call that we have some work to do as an institution,” said Yao.
CSU has already seen an increase in students getting their degrees. “In over the last two years, some 13,385 more (students have) graduated because of this initiative…That’s almost a 13% increase,” said White at the Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium. The push to get universities to relook at themselves and figure out a way to make the process better for all students is expected to be a massive win for almost everyone involved.
“Let me put the baccalaureate degrees in context: 105,437. That’s equivalent to every resident in the city of Carlsbad. Or every resident in Burbank. Or Redding. Or Santa Barbara. Every year, we are graduating a city of educated folk,” said White. “That’s pretty damn cool.”
The Graduation Initiative 2025 brings a lot of promise to the CSU system. There is no longer an attitude of “we have always done it this way”, which creates an environment of change at all levels of the CSU universities: the administration, the faculty and, most importantly, the students.
In his closing remarks at the Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium, White tied the initiative up nicely. “This is the right path for our students, for their future, for our future. Let’s keep moving.”