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Cal State graduation rates reach record highs and equity gaps narrow

Cal State graduation rates reach record highs and equity gaps narrow
Then-Galaxy soccer star Gyasi Zardes, center, graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills during ceremonies at the StubHub Center last year. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Graduation rates for California State University students hit record highs this year as campuses poured money into new faculty and expanded academic support and financial aid, university system officials announced Wednesday.

Just more than a quarter of all Cal State students who started as freshmen four years ago graduated this year.

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The nation’s largest and most diverse public university system also narrowed the persistent gap in graduation rates between low-income and underrepresented minority students and their peers.

The progress is “revolutionary stuff in our quest to enhance student achievement,” Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White said at a symposium on improving graduation rates Wednesday at San Diego State. “We believe any student, regardless of the circumstance of their birth and their life, who has the intellect and willingness to do the work will get a degree from the California State University if they have the courage to apply to us.”

Cal State organized the gathering as part of its ongoing initiative, launched in 2016, to raise four-year graduation rates to 40%, six-year rates to 70% and eliminate all differences in degree completion among underrepresented minority and low-income students by 2025.

Among Cal State’s 23 campuses, only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo had surpassed those graduation targets when the initiative was launched, according to the most recent rates posted on the system’s website. Cal State Dominguez Hills had the lowest graduation rate then — 6% after four years and 35% after six years — but has since improved this year to 11.5% and 48.3%, respectively.

Dominguez Hills had virtually no equity gap in graduation rates. San Luis Obispo had one of the largest in the system, with rates for underrepresented minorities and low-income students lagging behind their peers by 11 and 9 percentage points respectively.

Several campuses are expected to surpass the graduation rate targets in the current academic year, Cal State spokeswoman Toni Molle said.

Since 2016, the state and the university system have earmarked $220 million to support the initiative.

White said that shortening the time it takes to graduate by just one semester would immediately save students $13,000 in educational costs, reduce their debt and help them jump-start their careers. He has asked each campus to create its own plan to help students graduate more quickly.

Overall, campuses last year added 4,300 new course sections, opening 90,000 additional seats and reducing bottlenecks. Some have offered students small sums of money in micro-grants to help them get over the finish line. Faculty and academic advisors are making more use of data to identify struggling students and quickly step in to help. Campuses also have expanded summer offerings and redesigned courses to incorporate more academic support.

Cal State Northridge has developed a texting platform that allows students to find out about financial aid and many other topics covered in about 2,000 questions programmed into a chatbot. Officials say students will ask the bot questions they won’t ask humans, which could help keep them in school.

Timothy M. Renick, a vice president at Georgia State University who spoke at the symposium Wednesday, said his campus launched a chatbot to try to cut down on “summer melt” — when students accept admission offers but then fail to show up in the fall. In the summer of 2016, the bot fielded more than 200,000 questions; Renick credits it with helping about 300 more students enroll that fall than in previous years.

The new data show:

  • Cal State students earned 105,431 bachelor’s degrees in 2018, up by 6,660 over last year to reach an all-time high.

  • The 2018 four-year graduation rate for freshmen went up more than 6 percentage points, from 19.2%, since 2015. The six-year rate rose to 61.1% from 57% during that same period.

  • For transfer students, the two-year rate increased to 37.6% in 2018 from 30.5% in 2015. The four-year rate rose to 77% from 72.9% during that same period.

  • The graduation rate gap between underrepresented students of color and their peers narrowed to 10.5% in 2018 from 12.2% in 2017. For low-income students eligible for federal Pell grants, the gap slightly declined to 9.5% from 10.6% during that same period.

“It’s definitely cause for celebration,” White said. “If I had a football, I would spike it.”

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