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Graduation Crowd Behind

The Promise of a Four-Year Degree in California

Jacob Jackson, Kevin Cook September 26, 2016

Fewer than one in five first-time freshmen graduate from California State University (CSU) within four years. Because students who graduate on time require less state investment, tend to graduate with lower loan amounts and start earning income sooner, and open up space for other students, CSU has made it a priority to boost four-year graduation rates.

Senate Bill 412, known as the California Promise and recently signed by Governor Brown, aims to help more students graduate on time. Under the law, CSU campuses will promise priority course registration and additional academic advising as long as participating students pledge to take 15 units (usually four courses) per semester—while 12 units per semester is considered full-time for financial aid purposes, students need to accumulate 30 credits per year to graduate in four years.

How can the California Promise help CSU campuses increase four-year graduation?

In our research on CSU graduation rates, we have identified major factors related to low graduation rates and longer times to degree. Among the most common roadblocks are bottleneck courses—for which there is more demand than seats available. Another common problem is that students who change majors or simply don’t take the right combination of courses end up accumulating more units than they need to graduate.

Campuses have implemented several strategies to help students avoid bottlenecks, such as eliminating or streamlining course requirements, as well as increasing the number of sections offered for courses in high demand. Campuses have also focused on engaging students, improving and expanding advising, standardizing requirements across majors, and adjusting major-switching policies to address students accumulating extra units. Campuses expect their focus on four-year graduation to increase with the implementation of the new Graduation Initiative, which sets specific targets for on-time graduation rates. The California Promise also aims to help campuses address these roadblocks. Students who participate in the program will be able to enroll in the courses they need through priority registration. Participating students will receive advising and monitoring to help them take the right number and types of courses. The contracts will also stress the importance of taking enough units to graduate on time.

Who will benefit from the California Promise?

Students have to apply for the program, but automatic acceptance will be offered to any eligible applicant who graduated from an underserved high school, comes from a low-income family (defined as being eligible for a federal Pell Grant), or is a transfer student or first-generation college student. Other students may be accepted as well, as money permits. The California Promise may shorten times to degree for students in the targeted groups who are ready for college-level courses and able to take a full load but who would normally struggle to graduate on time due to course availability, a lack of advising, or who might otherwise take less than a full load without the promise. It is difficult to estimate how many students will fit into this group.

We know that about 40% of freshmen require remediation and may not be able to participate in the promise. Other students may work too many hours to enroll in 30 units per year. Another potential challenge is that high participation levels may make it harder for students who aren’t part of the program to graduate on time. Since no new funding is attached to the law, there are no new courses or advisers. Students without priority registration are likely to have less of a chance of getting in-demand courses that they need. And advising resources could also shift away from those students who are not a part of the contract.

Some campuses, such as CSU San Bernardino, already offer similar contracts. While initial results from some of these contracts suggest a positive impact, the programs are generally small in scope and still need rigorous evaluation. As campuses consider how to structure these agreements, they need to prevent students who don’t or can’t meet the terms of the contract from getting left behind. It will also be important for policymakers to consult with CSU campus leaders, faculty, and students to ensure that there is sufficient support for the program.

Learn more

Read the report Improving College Graduation Rates: A Closer Look at California State University
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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