GOOD

Cutting the Higher Education Graduation Gap in Half

Getting "super-seniors" to finish and ensuring that incoming freshmen graduate has to be a central focus of the nation's colleges.


Figuring out how to say goodbye to our college students may seem counterintuitive when it’s only December, but with shrinking resources and a growing demand for graduates to fill high-skill jobs, colleges can no longer afford "super-seniors"—students with a surplus of credit hours in the wrong combination to graduate. And we can no longer afford students who drop out after their first year.

In my 11-plus years as president of California State University at Northridge, I've given a lot of thought to life transitions and tendencies to cling to what’s comfortable. Nudging super-seniors to finish and ensuring that incoming freshmen persist to graduation is a central focus at our university. If that’s not our end game, we are failing students and higher education’s role in our nation’s competitiveness.


The majority of CSUN students come from traditionally underrepresented minority backgrounds and more than one-third are Pell recipients. More than 60 percent of freshmen need remediation in reading, writing, or mathematics. That’s twice the national rate.

The profound changes in our student body and the world of work they will enter require fresh approaches to boosting graduation rates, but we can't pin our hopes for the future on a financial windfall to help. The California State University system faces $650 million in cuts for 2011-12—the same funding levels as 1999, when we had 70,000 fewer students. Instead, we’ve adopted a culture of completion and a focus on evidence.

In 2000, campus leadership knew that our graduation rates were too low, but we weren't covering the basics—new student orientations didn’t even mention the goal of graduation. Since we admit students who aren't fully prepared for college work, some university staff worried that raising graduation rates might mean lowering standards. We challenged ourselves to think differently about students, to assume that if they are in our classrooms, they are capable of success, and we are responsible for helping them earn a degree.

Before we could change our culture, people had to know the severity of the problem. We presented data to faculty, administrative and student leadership to establish a common understanding. The numbers spoke for themselves: For freshmen entering in fall 1999, only 70.3 percent persisted to the next year. Among those from traditionally underserved groups, the continuation rate was 65.7 percent.

We were behind comparable institutions in our graduation rates and our students who dropped out overwhelmingly did so while in good academic standing. To address this, we established a task force on graduation rates co-chaired by the provost and the faculty president, and their data analysis zeroed-in on our dropout rate and our super senior problem

With faculty ownership and involvement, the freshman experience was revamped. It now includes ways, both traditional and online, for incoming freshmen—particularly first generation and low income students—to get a head start the summer before the fall semester begins. This includes remedial coursework and more individualized support. An early warning system triggers additional support for struggling students.

A University 100 course allows students to earn credit as they learn about campus resources and map out a plan for their academic and career success. Our Living Learning Communities bring together students who live and learn together, with a shared focus on graduation. Research shows that these students are more likely to succeed academically. Additionally, linked courses create supportive student cohorts, and supplemental instruction is tied to courses with high failure rates.

To reduce the number of super seniors, CSUN learned that withholding money and registration are great motivators. We established new financial-aid limits, awarding financial aid only up to 150 units—down from 180. Through registration holds, we require students with 130 credits or more to develop a graduation action plan, meet with their advisor and submit an application for graduation. We restrict enrollment above 140 units to courses required for graduation in the major for which the student has completed the highest percentage of requirements. Students with 140 units or more can now be graduated administratively if they have completed all requirements for any major, whether or not they have declared that major.

As a result, the number of super seniors with more than 130 units declined from 1,917 in spring 2008 to 911 in spring 2011, a reduction of 52.5 percent. The number of seniors with more than 140 units fell from 1,055 to 458 over the period, a 56.6 percent reduction.

Freshmen continuation rates have improved as well. For freshmen that entered in fall 2009, 74.3 percent continued to the next year, including 71.4 percent of those from traditionally underserved groups. This improvement was accomplished while growing the incoming class from 2,575 in 1999 to 4,056 in 2009, with 2,405 from traditionally underserved groups.

CSUN’s six-year graduation rate is now 48 percent. That’s up from 32 percent in 2003, and we’ve closed the graduation rate gap by half. Education Trust recognized our university as a "top gap closer" for our efforts to increase minority completion rates. We’re also featured in a report that identifies more than 30 postsecondary institutions that are making headway on the graduation gap.

We are encouraged, but by no means satisfied with this progress. Too many students at CSUN and elsewhere still start college and don’t finish. But we are committed to continue working on this issue. Our nation’s future lies with students from all demographic groups having the opportunity to not only go to college but to also graduate.

Photo by Phil Schermeister, Copyright California State University, Northridge

Articles
Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
Health