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CSU officials want to spend $75 million to improve graduation rates

College freshmen study in a class that is part of the freshman First-Year Experience, designed to help students stay in school, at Cal State Dominguez Hills in October 2015.
(Christina House / For The Times)

California State University officials plan to ask the system’s board of trustees to consider spending about $75 million next year as part of a plan to drastically improve graduation rates by 2025.

The trustees will discuss the plan and how campuses can improve graduation rates during meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Long Beach.

Though Cal State has traditionally set targets using a six-year graduation rate, Gov. Jerry Brown has made clear that the largest college system in the nation needs to get more students through, faster, in order to continue receiving increased state funding.

It’s a charge that the CSU has taken seriously, hiring James Minor, a former assistant secretary from the U.S. Department of Education, to lead the effort.

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Of the CSU students who began as full-time freshmen in 2004, 17.2% graduated in four years or less. That percentage had risen to 19.1% for the students who began in fall of 2011. Nationally, 34.4% of students who began attending a four-year public university as freshmen in 2008 graduated in four years, according to the most recent federal data.

Graduation Initiative 2025, as the plan is called, also has six-year graduation rate goals, as well as goals for transfer students, some of whom already fare better than students who start in the system as freshmen. But a major focus of the initiative, school leaders say, is on four-year graduation rates and reducing the gaps in those rates between white students and students of color.

Getting students to graduate in four years is key to meeting California’s economic needs, said Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard. A 2014 Public Policy Institute of California report found that by 2025, the state could experience a shortage of workers with a college education.

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Plus, getting students out in four years rather than six is more affordable for students, shaving costs for tuition and other expenses. It is a particular challenge for Cal State, though, because many of its 474,000 students skew older, attend part time, have jobs and families and take longer to earn their degrees.

On Tuesday, the trustees plan to discuss what the goals should be and how to reach them as well as how much additional funding to ask of the state to achieve these goals.

The system had previously set a goal to reach a 65% to 70% six-year graduation rate by 2025, and a 30% to 35% four-year graduation rate by that year. Blanchard will probably present a plan to make those goals even more aggressive, based on recent graduation rate data.

Each of Cal State’s 23 campuses will also have its own goals, based on their current graduation rates.

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“If we’re successful in achieving these goals, it will place the [Cal State system] as a national leader in providing high-quality, affordable education,” Minor said.

There are a few strategies administrators have identified to get students through in four years, said Jeff Gold, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for student success and strategic initiatives.

They include encouraging more students to take a full course load, hiring additional faculty to teach high-demand “bottleneck” classes that students need to graduate, providing supports such as academic advisors and tutoring for students, and individualized campus plans, Gold said.

The board is also slated to discuss a preliminary support budget request of an additional $168.8 million from the state for the 2017-18 school year to fund the graduation initiative and pay for other expenses such as increased costs for salaries and to upgrade facilities.

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Cal State received $3.2 billion from the state this year and expects to receive an additional $157.2 million next year. The $168.8 million is what school officials believe the system will need to fund all of its priorities. Cal State’s base budget is about $5.4 billion, which includes both state funding and tuition revenue.

There are no current plans to increase student tuition to pay for the graduation initiative if state funding fails to come through, CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle said.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


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