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Increasing On-time Graduation Rates at CSU

Jacob Jackson February 26, 2016

Just 19% of California students at California State University (CSU) campuses graduate in four years. A bill introduced this week is aimed at improving these graduation rates by addressing two commonly cited issues important to graduating on time: getting access to necessary classes and taking a full course load.

The bill would guarantee that students’ tuition is frozen at freshmen-year levels and provide priority registration for classes—as long as they take enough units to stay on track to graduate in four years and carry a certain minimum GPA. In order to graduate in 4 years, students need to average 15 units a semester (about 5 classes). However, students can take 12 units a semester (about 4 classes) and still be considered full-time by university standards and for financial aid purposes. While it does not cost any more money for students to take 15 units, many students choose to take 12 units so they can work or because they feel that 15 units would be too challenging. It’s also possible that some students just don’t know that taking only 12 units pushes them off-track to graduate on time.

Would a promise of frozen tuition be enough to cause more students to graduate in four years? After all, there has always been a financial incentive to do so. The fifth (and sixth) year of college is expensive, and later graduation also keeps student from entering the workforce full time and earning income. For example, a student starting in 2007 who graduated in 4 years would save $5,472 in tuition alone by not attending a fifth year—when including a year’s worth of room, board, books, and other related expenses, this number is closer to $20,000,and likely even more when considering the foregone earnings a student could be making during that year. Under the proposed bill, SB 1450, that student would save an additional $3,198, thanks to frozen tuition. If a vast majority of students do not finish in 4 years in light of the significant savings, would the promise of additional $3,000 in eventual savings push them to take more classes each semester?

It is possible that by highlighting near-term savings on yearly tuition the bill could convince some students to stay on track and graduate on time. How much it could move the needle for on-time graduation remains to be seen. If few students are moved to participate, the state could end up just partially subsidizing the degrees of students who were already going to finish in 4 years.

It makes sense for legislators and the higher education systems to work together to remove the barriers for on-time graduation for California’s students. This would cost students and the state less money, increase the number of CSU graduates, and makes space for more students at the university.

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