California State University is embarking on an ambitious initiative to raise its graduation rates and help more low-income and minority students earn degrees, even as it faces perhaps the grimmest budget outlook in its history.
The university is setting a goal of boosting its six-year graduation rate by 8% by 2016, bringing it to 54%, in line with the top national averages at similar institutions. University leaders say they hope to raise graduation rates for underrepresented minority students by 10%, cutting in half what has been a thorny achievement gap in degree completion compared with white students.
The university is scheduled to unveil the initiative today at a meeting of its Board of Trustees in Long Beach. The plan is part of a nationwide project by a consortium of public university leaders, the National Assn. of System Heads and the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Cal State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed, who is also president of the system heads group, previewed the initiative for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week.
Cal State is the nation's largest university system, with 450,000 students and about 90,000 graduates each year. The goal of the new project is to increase the number of graduates by 7,000 or 8,000 students annually.
Each of Cal State's 23 campuses is working to finalize comprehensive plans that would be implemented beginning this fall, Reed said in an interview this week. The initiative could fundamentally change the educational experience of students, offering more individualized support but limiting many of the choices they have traditionally enjoyed.
Measures under consideration include reducing the number of general education courses needed to graduate and restricting students' ability to withdraw from a class or change a major. Campuses may also try various remedies to keep students on track toward a degree, including audits of their progress, mandatory advising sessions and fee rebates for students who graduate on time.
The feasibility of implementing such change in the grip of a budget crisis remains to be seen. The cost over the next six years has not been calculated, Reed said. But moving students more quickly through the system saves money, and many campuses already were beginning to address that issue in response to budget cuts.
At the same time, Cal State campuses have been forced to cut classes, stalling efforts by many students to complete degrees. Reed said the university used about $25 million in one-time federal stimulus funds to bring back some of those classes for the spring semester and hopes to use more stimulus money -- perhaps another $25 million -- for costs associated with the graduation initiative.
Many measures, such as dropping some general education requirements, require no new resources, the chancellor said.
"There are simple things we can do, like having faculty take class attendance and if a student misses a second or third time, call or e-mail to find out why and get on it before they get so far behind, get a failing grade and give up hope," Reed said in the interview.
"We can give better academic advice to make sure that the classes students take count toward graduation. We can give them online road maps so they can see over the next several semesters what courses they need to take. We can set up study groups. The big thing is paying more attention."
The Education Trust is working with the university systems, including Cal State, to collect data and help develop goals and strategies. It plans to issue a semiannual progress report on schools' efforts. With a core mission of improving education opportunities for low-income and minority students, the advocacy group in the past has criticized many of the university systems for failing to improve graduation rates.
"What's important about the CSU initiative is that it represents the nation's largest public university system saying we're not going to blame this on students being poorly prepared, there are things we can do even in these horrible economic times," said Kati Haycock, president of the Trust.
"CSU is the workhorse of supplying college degrees for the workforce," she said. "Given its demographics, if it doesn't do a better job not just admitting students but graduating Latino and African American kids in particular, California doesn't have much of a future."
Faculty members at some Cal State campuses have complained that they had too little input into the plans. And some praised the goal of graduating more students but said they feared that the university would use gimmicks to make it appear that more are succeeding.
"The stumbling block for many students is linked to things CSU has been doing for years, like reducing classes and raising fees," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Assn. "We worry that without the resources for the fundamental things that increase the numbers of graduates, they will tend to turn to gimmicks and smoke and mirrors."
Taiz, a history professor at Cal State L.A., also said some measures, such as reducing general education requirements and the number of units needed to complete some majors, could dilute the quality of a Cal State education.
"The focus on increasing graduation rates can't lead us to limit the educational experience and make it more narrow and just job training," she said. "Employers want college graduates who are flexible and can take on different kinds of responsibilities. Cutting general education courses may move people faster, but what is the quality of what they're getting?"