A Matter of Degrees

SF State is making strides toward improved graduation rates...for all students

Collage of puzzle pieces, dice, compass, pictures of students, key, watch, and other nik naks

By Hilary Masell Oswald
Art by Polly Becker

EVERY YEAR IN early spring, reporters all over the country who cover higher education churn out the same sensational stories about college admission. They look at a tiny swath of schools that fall into the ultra-selective category, report how few students were actually admitted and imply that getting an acceptance letter to a four-year college or university is an uphill battle that’s more laborious — with an outcome less certain — than it was the year before. High school juniors and their parents break into a cold sweat: The American dream — replete with a good job and a steady income — just inched a little further away.

And yet, the really sensational story isn’t about how hard it is to get into college. It’s about how hard it is to get out—with a degree.

Here are the facts: Across the country, many students who want to earn bachelor’s degrees enroll in what we colloquially call “four-year colleges,” even though fewer than 40 percent of first-time freshmen will graduate in four years and only about 60 percent will earn their degrees in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a data clearinghouse overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. Those numbers have been ticking upward slightly since the mid-’90s, showing gains for all subgroups (divided out by gender and by ethnicity), though the public uproar over how few students are actually graduating, combined with reports of snowballing student debt, is as shrill as ever.

“The critique of higher education has gotten so loud that it can’t be ignored,” says Lori Beth Way, interim dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning at SF State. “The critique is deep and broad, and particularly in state schools, state leaders are responding by saying, ‘You have to do better by your students.’ And they’re right. We do.”

At SF State, graduation rates for first-time freshmen don’t quite reach national averages: Only 18 percent of these students will graduate in four years, and 51 percent of first-time freshmen will earn their degrees in six. For transfer students — who aren’t included in the NCES data — the two-year graduation rate (that is, the percentage of students who will graduate after transferring to SF State and spending two years completing their degree work) is 37 percent. Tack on another two years — six years total — and the graduation rate rises to 76 percent. And of course, these additional semesters (the reasons for which we’ll dig into in a moment) add up to increased cost of attendance for students, which usually means greater debt.

In response to these factors and the push from state and national leaders to improve accountability in higher education, last fall the California State University launched its Graduation Initiative 2025, an ambitious plan to boost graduation rates for all 475,000 students across all 23 campuses. The goals across the system are to increase the four-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen from 19 percent to 40 percent and the six-year rate from 52 percent to 70 percent, along with similarly scaled improved outcomes for transfer students. And with a $75 million investment, CSU leaders also plan to eliminate “achievement gaps” — those markers that show disparity in educational outcomes between one ethnic or socioeconomic subgroup and another — for underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students. If the plan is successful, the CSU will contribute more than 1 million baccalaureate-degree holders to the state by 2025, thereby meeting an ever-increasing demand for college-educated citizens.

To reach these goals, each campus in the CSU has looked closely at its distinctive student population and drilled down into the specific obstacles students must hurtle before they don their caps and gowns. “Every campus faces unique challenges,” says Jennifer Summit, SF State’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State. “One of the temptations in solving a big, broad problem like graduation rates is to assume every campus should implement the same tactics, but we’re looking closely at who our students are and what they need.”

With that in mind, the University set about creating a plan for boosting graduation rates for all students — motivated not only by a decree from higher up the organizational ladder, but also by passion for a shared mission.

“The need to graduate our students, many of whom have overcome significant challenges to be here, is a powerful and palpable social justice,” Summit says. “You don’t have to convince anyone that this matters.”

A Close Look at the Problem

Collage of Girl

The essential question is obvious: Why don’t more students graduate on time? And the answers, it turns out, are numerous and connected.

For starters, the most recent Senior Exit Survey — administered annually to graduating students — revealed that 41 percent of students didn’t graduate in the time they expected, and 46 percent of that group attributed their delay to inability to enroll in required courses. To maintain their financial aid eligibility, students must enroll in courses they don’t need to fulfill major requirements, which is evident in another bit of data: Currently, students graduate from San Francisco State with an average of 135 units—15 more than the 120 required for a baccalaureate degree. And to further complicate matters, nearly half of surveyed students said they never saw an advisor for help choosing or enrolling in courses.

This lack of advising is a contributing factor in another issue: academic probation, which is tied to attrition (especially for students of color). Institutional research shows that more than 22 percent of first-time freshmen and 18 percent of new transfer students are put on probation, most often during their first semester, and nearly three-quarters of them leave without completing their degrees.

These challenges lead to another issue: Most students who leave the University without earning their bachelor’s degree exit before the start of their junior year. One reason for these early departures is a lack of engagement — both in class and on campus — that might make first-year students (more than one-third of whom are the first in their families to go to college) feel adrift in a sea of challenging coursework, new people and a system they don’t yet know how to navigate.

“Does this surprise us? No,” Summit says. “We get the same information from multiple channels, and it points to the same issues. The good news is that a lot of our problems are systems problems. None of this happened because somebody didn’t care. It happened because we weren’t working together as a coherent and unified campus all moving in the same direction, facilitated by open and regular mission-driven communication. Now we are.”

And for a shot of inspiration, they’re looking closely at a program on campus that achieves precisely what the University is aiming to do.

A Model That Works

When Alexandra Nicole Urbina considered enrolling at SF State as a first-time freshman, she probably didn’t realize how high the cards were stacked against her: She’s a first-generation college student, meaning that neither of her parents went to college, so her chances of graduating were about one in four, according to the Pell Institute. She’s also a student of color, and across the country, less than 31 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years — compared with 43.7 percent of their white peers. And she arrived needing remediation in math, yet another obstacle to eventual collegiate success.

But Urbina had one key advantage over these broader subgroups to which she belongs: She started her college career as part of the Metro College Success Program, a two-year learning community that functions like a small school within the larger university. Each Metro cohort (SF State currently has 10) comprises 140 students who take two general education courses together each semester in addition to two or three additional courses chosen in consultation with their Metro advisor. All courses in the Metro pathway satisfy the University’s general education requirements and address broad career themes such as science, health or business. These students are typically in need of academic remediation, are likely to be first-generation students and/or from low-income families, and are often underrepresented ethnic or racial minorities. Metro brings what educators call “wrap-around services” — such as tutoring, advising and help with financial aid — to the students in their Metro classes, instead of waiting for students to seek out help.



“The need to graduate our students, many of whom have overcome significant challenges to be here, is a powerful and palpable social justice.”

— Jennifer Summit, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs



“We create a home base where [these students] have a strong sense of belonging,” says Mary Beth Love, co-executive director for Metro Academies and chair of the Department of Health Education. “The classes are designed to address real-world challenges in an engaging manner, making the material and discussions compelling. Students get to know and care about each other’s success; friendship and peer support further enhance their chances of success. For example, they move with their friends from math class to math tutoring and, instead of being stigmatizing to go to tutoring, it’s fun.”

Urbina, a kinesiology major who will graduate next spring, says she cannot imagine her college career without Metro. “I probably would have wasted a lot of time taking classes that I didn’t need,” she says. “My parents didn’t know how to navigate the system; actually, I didn’t know anyone who knew how to navigate the CSU system. As soon as I got into the program, I felt like a weight was lifted from my back.”

Even teaching differs in Metro, where professors take at least 45 hours of training to learn engaged teaching skills. “The issue of how an expert teaches in the classroom is different from how bright that expert is,” Love says. “Our faculty [in Metro] are talking in a real way about how to engage students in a classroom; they’re asking, ‘how do I interact with this global village sitting in front of me?’”

Instead of individual courses that might have tenuous — or nonexistent — thematic connections, Metro classes are all linked by a broad academic focus, addressing social topics such as education equity or community health.

“For students fresh out of high school, there’s an adrenaline rush that comes from having an informed discussion about important, real-world problems around which you have developed expertise,” Love says. “For our students, this meaningful intellectual engagement exposes them to learning that inspires and fuels the hard work college requires.”

Rama Kased, Metro’s director of student services, reports that the program’s distinctive combination of support and structure has created the results needed to close the equity gap in the CSU. Metro’s five-year graduation rate (nearly 60 percent) is almost 22 percentage points higher than a matched comparison group (38 percent). The initial per-pupil investment is also larger—by about $1,000 the first two years—but the savings, as calculated by the program with third-party input, is almost $18,000 per graduate because of focused use of resources and a shorter time to degree.

With this library of high-impact practices at their fingertips and a clear understanding of the factors influencing graduation rates, SF State leaders put together their plan for Graduation Initiative 2025.

Collage of Students with nik naks

“The critique is deep and broad, and particularly in state schools, state leaders are responding by saying, ‘You have to do better by your students.’ And they’re right.”

—Lori Beth Way, interim dean of SF State’s Division of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning

The Path Forward

Released in September, the University’s plan identifies a few short-term fixes — paid for with one-time funds from CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White’s office — and a five-pronged, long-term approach to bolster graduation rates and student success. (See “The Plan” sidebar.) To start, 18 new graduation specialists have been hired to mitigate the backlog in advising. In addition, the University’s 23 undergraduate college departments each received grants for faculty
advisors, who reached out to students in their majors with 90 units or more to offer guidance that might help them graduate without delay. And to alleviate bottleneck classes, the University added 217 sections of high-demand courses, resulting in 8,897 additional seats compared with the previous spring.

“We’ve done a lot of work in a short period,” says Way, interim dean of undergraduate education and academic planning. “The whole philosophical change around 2025 is to go from being reactive to being proactive.”

It’s a shift that touches nearly every office on campus, especially as the University rolls out its long-term plan. For example, administrators are using predictive software to analyze course demand and update offerings so that students don’t have to wait around for a semester or a year before nabbing spots in required courses. The Academic Senate passed a resolution to move courses to standard blocks of time, which will help ensure students can fit them into their schedules. Some departments are using small grants to redesign high-failure courses; others are re-evaluating their major degree curricula. Five new, permanent advisors will make it easier for students to identify the clearest path to graduation, and the University plans to renovate the Undergraduate Advising Center and other resource centers to make them more welcoming for students.

The Plan

SF State's plan to boost graduation rates is built on five major areas:

1. Improved course availability and curricular planning

2. Coordinated, intrusive and strategic advising

3. Broad accessibility and visibility of student success data

4. High-quality student experience in the first year of college for incoming freshmen and transfer students

5. Effective, targeted support services to achieve educational equity

“We’re striving toward this webbed network of support — in class and outside of it,” says Luoluo Hong, vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. “Historically, we’ve said, ‘Our services are here, students. Please come.’ Now we’re shifting and becoming much more outreach focused. We’re going to where students are and being more assertive about giving them more support earlier on.”

SF State is also facing another kind of shift: Whereas the University has historically been a transfer institution, it’s seeing a growing number of first-time freshmen who need ways to connect with the broader campus life. To that end, the University is in the process of a one-year exploratory program called “Foundations of Excellence,” in which 90 faculty and staff examine new students’ experiences from an integrated perspective; results will serve as a jumping-off point for redesigning the first-year experience.

These (along with a few dozen smaller initiatives) add up to a massive, unified effort unlike any the University has ever undertaken. Accountability is high, as is hope. The systems for tracking student performance are designed so that nobody falls through the proverbial cracks, and outreach efforts are more robust than they’ve ever been. And Way speaks for her colleagues when she points to the greater mission behind the myriad tactics that make up the campus’s graduation initiative: “Of course, we want to push the graduation and retention rates upward. But one of the things that’s most exciting for me, for all of us, is shrinking the opportunity gap—to be able to graduate everyone, who arrive from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of skill sets. The bottom line: We want to be serving all of our students all of the time.”

Book Cover for "Miscalling"