By Kelsey Reichmann
Although commonly known as four-year universities, the reality is that very few California State University students graduate in four years. In 2015, when the freshman four-year graduation rate at the CSU’s 23 campuses was 19 percent, the CSU Board of Trustees announced its goal of seeing that rate rise to 40 percent by 2025.
Achieving that rate in 10 years throughout the state seems like a big feat, but the challenge is even greater at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where the four-year graduation rate for incoming freshmen was 8 percent, in 2017, according to EdSource.org, which was tied for lowest in the CSU with Cal State Los Angeles.
Low graduation rates do not reflect positively on colleges. When it comes time for accreditation (CSUDH’s accreditation was extended 10 years this summer), regional accreditation agencies look at low graduation rates as a possible warning sign to “determine what, if any, additional oversight, monitoring or sanctions are warranted,” according to a 2018 report by the Council of Regional Accreditation Agencies.
Two other examples of low graduation rates being a possible drawback for colleges: a 2011 article on Acenet.edu, “Why graduation rates matter—and why they don’t” cited a 2010 report that found graduation rates to be the fifth most important indicator of a school’s quality among high school seniors; the same article mentioned that in 2010, during the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010 “suggested that NCAA teams that fail to graduate 40 percent of their players should be ineligible for post-season competition.”
But low graduation rates are not only a problem for universities. Students can also suffer.
College has never been more expensive than it is now. With tuition fees rising every year, it is important that students get their degrees in an efficient manner. The longer students are in school, the more money they will end up spending in tuition, and student loan interest. According to a July 17, 2014 article on Collegeexpress.com, students who get their degrees in four years exhibit follow-through to potential employers.
According to the Student Success Report from 2017-2018, put out by CSUDH’s department for Retention, University Academic Advisement and Learning, the leading causes of graduation denials were missing major and general education requirements and the General Writing Assessment Requirement, or GWAR.
But the situation at CSUDH is affected by other variables. CSUDH students are commonly first-generation college students, Pell Grant eligible, and minorities. Across the nation, these students are less likely to graduate, but at CSUDH they are according to Dr. Bridget Driscoll, associate vice president of Retention, University Advisement & Learning.
Given CSUDH’s relatively anemic graduation rates, its goals are more modest than the CSU system as a whole. For instance, according to its graduation initiative 2025 website, while the CSU is aiming for a four-year freshman graduation rate of 40% by 2025, CSUDH is aiming for a rate of 31%.
But the university has aggressively implemented programs recently to help reach those numbers. One of those programs, AASCU Re-Imagining the First Year (RFY), has helped raise the school’s six-year graduation rate by 7 percent.
Driscoll credits this success to the outlook the program has taken as a whole.
“We have focused on the student, not numbers,” said Driscoll. “When people talk about graduation rates, they forget about the person at the other end.”
RFY is a program designed to help freshman transition from high school to college. A big part of RFY is Summer Bridge. This a program that allows students to take free courses during the summer before their freshman year starts. It also provides students with resources such as advisors and supplemental instructors.
Driscoll said that 81 percent of CSUDH freshman needed one or two math or English remediation classes. The Summer Bridge program allows them to take these classes during the summer free of charge. Getting these essential courses for free not only lightens the financial load, but it also allows students to move forward with their degrees in a timely manner, Driscoll said.
Evelyn Flores, a psychology major, said she was part of CSUDH’s Educational Opportunity Program or EOP. EOP is part of RFY, which gives college freshman support. Flores said she was offered priority registration through this program, which helped her stay on track for graduation.
Through this program, students are connected with peer mentors and faculty mentors. Driscoll said this is one of the most important aspects of the program.
Migdalia Sanchez, a communications major, started at CSUDH as a freshman in 2011. Now a senior, she sees the experience her sister, a freshman, is enjoying now and wishes she had the same opportunities. Sanchez said the resources offered to freshman in 2011 were not as helpful as they are now.
The help does not stop after freshman year. A new program that has been implemented is the junior intervention program, Charge on to Graduation, which helps students access their academic requirements report, which is essential for graduation, and make sure it’s accurate.
The university has also formed a Graduation Innovation team, which includes members from admissions and records, the finance office, the provost office, student affairs office, and faculty.
Driscoll credits Naomi Goodwin, the vice president of finance at CSUDH, with working to make sure these programs have the funding they need to help students. Goodwin even worked with Driscoll to assist senior students who might have not graduated because of financial concerns. Driscoll said that to have someone in Goodwin’s position at CSUDH working so closely with a program such as this is rare.
Driscoll said that the four-year graduation rate at CSUDH increased 2-3 percentage points each year and expects the freshman class of 2015, which will graduate in 2019, to be the best yet.
“We have more work to do,” said Driscoll. “For me, I want 100%.”