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Campus Doing Homework to Boost Its Graduation Rate

Cal State Northridge, which had a reputation for being indifferent to dropouts, has stepped up efforts to get students to finish their studies.

October 25, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

It's just the first semester of his freshman year at Cal State Northridge, but Manuel Munoz already is thinking about what it will take to graduate.

The university, he explained, started prodding freshmen to focus on getting a degree, and getting it on time, at orientation programs in August.

"It came up tons of times, said Munoz, an 18-year-old from Granada Hills who has yet to choose a major.

That emphasis reflects a major shift at Cal State Northridge, a campus with one of the worst graduation rates in California and, until recently, a reputation for indifference toward dropouts.

Now it is emerging as a textbook example of a campus trying to propel more undergraduates to bachelor's degrees and as a catalyst for reform in the 23-campus California State University system, the nation's largest network of public universities.

The school's challenges remain formidable. Even with progress in recent years, the latest federal figures show that only 36.3% of Cal State Northridge's freshmen stay at the campus and earn bachelor's degrees within six years. That compares with an average of 44.9% for the Cal State system, a national norm of 54.3% and rates exceeding 80% at more selective schools such as UCLA and USC.

Cal State Northridge's struggle reflects the difficulties often faced by U.S. campuses that chiefly serve urban commuter students, including many who also hold down jobs and who are the first in their families to attend college. Higher education researchers say those students are more likely than others to drop out or require extra years to graduate.

However, since Cal State Northridge President Jolene Koester took the helm of the 33,000-student campus in July 2000, the school has adopted or expanded a broad array of programs to build social bonds among freshmen.

It has encouraged students to be more active on campus, and not just drive home when classes end. At the same time, the university has tried to improve advising and ease the long-standing problems undergraduates have faced in enrolling in crowded required classes.

"It's our responsibility to remove as many institutional obstacles and barriers as we can," Koester said. "We're talking about a culture change."

Her push already has yielded progress; the graduation rate moved up from 25.6% in three years. In another sign of improvement, 77.1% of last year's freshmen showed up this fall for their sophomore year. That figure has inched up steadily since a decade ago, when the freshman-to-sophomore retention level was 71.9%.

Charles B. Reed, Cal State system chancellor, said getting more students to earn degrees in four or five years is crucial to keeping enough classroom space available for the state's growing number of high school graduates. In that effort, Cal State Northridge administrators "have been pathfinders," he said.

Many of the university's initiatives stem from research showing that college dropouts typically quit before starting their second year. In response, Cal State Northridge is offering for-credit "University 100" freshman classes in which students get, among other things, practical tips on how to use the library, take notes and memorize material, along with advice on joining student organizations and activities.

The university also is putting increasing numbers of first-year students in "freshman connection" groups that take several classes together. That has worked out well for Edward Ruiz, 18, of Los Feliz who takes University 100, along with Chicano studies and sociology courses, with 17 other students in his group.

Ruiz said he felt anxious when he started at the university in August. But within a few weeks, he said, "I started making new friends and stuff like that. That's when my experience changed.

"You can make friends easy when you see them all the time," Ruiz said. "If I ever miss class because I get sick or anything, I know I could ask one of them for class assignments."

Munoz, who is in the freshman group with Ruiz, said the campus seems to be far different from what it was in the 1990s, when his two older brothers attended the school.

One brother dropped out. The other earned a degree in 1997, thanks to his own persistence in pushing for the classes he needed. These days, Munoz said, the school seems to offer "more support, more of a community sense." He plans to graduate in four years, partly by taking summer classes.

In recent years the school has taken such additional steps as simplifying and reducing general education requirements, establishing an "early warning" system alerting advisors about freshmen who are struggling in key classes and calling dropouts to ask if anything can be done to help them return.

The university also has retooled a website to enable students to more easily keep track of the courses they need to graduate.

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