Reaffirming long-standing concerns over how Cal State Northridge shepherds its students through their degree programs, a new campus study has found that just over 31% of the school's freshmen graduate after six years, compared with an average 39% in the larger Cal State system.
Just 3.5% of CSUN freshman graduate after four years, contrasted with about 10% systemwide, according to the chancellor's office.
Although the figures were not exactly what administrators had hoped to see, neither were they a shock at the campus, which embodies all the evolving problems of a modern commuter university: more students who work, who juggle school and family, who require remedial classes--and who pay twice as much tuition now as students did at the beginning of the decade.
"The figures reflect life and times in Los Angeles," said CSUN psychology department Chairwoman Joyce Brotsky, who contributed to the report. "The idea of a four-year degree was established at a time when people went to school and spent all of their time going to classes, studying for their classes."
Even so, CSUN has been criticized in the past for failing to usher its students swiftly and simply through the system.
In 1991, an outside accreditation team deemed the university's academic advising "uneven at best" and called it one of the campus' most notable shortcomings. CSUN students have long echoed the common college complaint that they were advised to take the wrong course or told that a required course was unnecessary, sometimes delaying graduation.
CSUN officials acknowledge that there have been problems. They also say they are taking several important steps to help speed students along and view the report, released last month, as a well-timed tool to help guide their efforts.
"We wanted to understand better what we do and how we affect student outcomes," said Spero Bowman, director of the university's academic affairs division, which headed the study.
Administrators are also quick to point out that faster is not always better.
Indeed, the study--which analyzed 112,000 students from 1984 to 1996--found that in some cases, students who "stop out," or take a semester or more off, are more likely to continue their schooling and graduate.
Among the efforts to keep undergraduates in school during the year, and coming back each fall, is a plan to make guidance counseling mandatory for every incoming freshman. Approved by the Faculty Senate on Thursday, the new counseling system could be in place by the 1997-98 school year, officials said. It would require students to meet with an advisor periodically until they had completed their basic course work.
A one-stop Student Success Center, as it has been dubbed, is also expected to simplify such procedures as admission and registration. To be located in the former administration building, which was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the center is slated to open in 1999.
Also, a computer-based students records system came online two years ago, officials said, and is helping advisors quickly pull up detailed information on a student's progress rather than wait days or weeks for the data.
Still, the study "raises more questions than it answers," Bowman said. "We haven't really learned what causes behaviors; we've just documented the behaviors."
Indeed, quantifying such things as which students do well is such difficult, esoteric business that the report contained one startling--and apparently erroneous--figure that officials initially failed to catch.
The report says it took the average CSUN freshman 7.35 years to earn a degree, compared with 5.6 years systemwide. When first questioned by The Times about the relatively long time to graduate, several officials attributed it to changing demographics and other commuter-school dilemmas. Now officials for both CSUN and the CSU chancellor's office say it was simply a typographical error: CSUN's average is actually 5.6 years, the systemwide average.
If it doesn't provide any simple solutions, the exhaustive study paints a clearer picture than ever about which CSUN students are more likely to persist in their quest for a degree.
Breaking down the six-year graduation rate for freshman entering between 1984 and 1990, the study found that:
* Students who met traditional admission requirements were far more likely to earn a degree than so-called "exception admits," 34% versus 12%. Exception admits include older students attending college for the first time who may have had poor grades in high school or students who scored poorly on standardized tests but gained admission on the basis of life experience.
* Women graduated at a higher rate than men, 35% versus 27%.
* The higher a student's grade-point average in high school, the greater the chance of graduating. Students who entered with GPAs of 3.5 and above showed a 49% graduation rate, contrasted with 12% for those with GPAs of 2.0 to 2.49.
* In an ethnic breakdown, white students had the highest graduation rate (36%), and black students the lowest (14%). The rate for Asian Americans was 35% and 22% for Mexican Americans.
With more than 100 pages of such statistics now in hand, the challenge facing administrators is using them improve students services, said Louanne Kennedy, CSUN's provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Slater is a Times staff writer and Vitucci is a correspondent.
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A 12-year study by Cal State Northridge shows who is most likely to graduate from CSUN after six years. The study tracked more than 112,000 student for up to eight years from their enrollment.
Freshmen Who Graduate...
In four years: 3.5%
In six years: 31%
In four years: 10%
In six years: 39%
Getting a Degree
The average length of time it takes for a freshman to obtain a degree:
CSUN: 5.6 years
CSU average: 5.6 years
Graduation rates for selected groups graduating in six years, who entered as freshmen from 1984 to 1990:
H.S. GPA 3.5-up: 49%
Source: Cal State Northridge