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Testimony: Getting to Graduation on Time at California State University

Jacob Jackson November 19, 2020
photo - Happy College Graduates

Jacob Jackson, a research fellow at the PPIC Higher Education Center, testified before the Select Committee on Student Success on November 19, 2020.

Here are his prepared remarks.

Thank you, Senator Glazer and members of the committee, for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Jacob Jackson and I am a Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. PPIC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization and does not take positions on legislation. My comments today are about a recent report on course-taking and on time completion at the California State University.

CSU is making strides toward its Graduation Initiative 2025 goals of 70% in six years and 40% within four years. However, fewer than a third of undergraduates finish their degrees in four years. Each extra year a student takes to graduate comes with associated costs—tuition, books, fees, and living expenses—which can add thousands to the cost of a degree and lead to more student debt.

Most significant, however, is the opportunity cost of not entering the workforce. That cost is around $45,000 per year, based on earnings of CSU graduates. Moreover, historically underserved students often pay this extra cost, as there are persistent gaps in four-year graduation rates by race, family income, and first-generation status.

One way to close outcome gaps is to focus on gaps in opportunity. Our recent report looked at one aspect of on-time graduation—course-taking early in a student’s college career. Enabling and encouraging full course loads has been a major focus of the Graduation Initiative 2025, as well as the California Promise Program.

In our research, we used publicly available data from the CSU enrollment dashboards, as well as data from four campuses who volunteered their de-identified longitudinal data. Today I will share our main findings.

First, most students do not take enough units to be on track to graduate in 4 years. For financial aid purposes, students are full-time at 12 units per term, but it takes an average of 15 per term (or 30 per year) to graduate on time. The typical student enrolls in about 13 units per term. The most recent data show that around 43% of undergraduates enroll in 15 units, which is up from about a third just five years ago.

Second, students enrolling in a full course load are more likely to finish on time. Students who enroll in 15 units in their first term are about 11 percentage points more likely—about twice as likely—to graduate on time, and a little more likely to graduate in six years. This is not just an instance of more-prepared students taking more units and graduating sooner. We were able to use the student-level data from the campuses to determine that this relationship exists for historically underrepresented students, first-generation students, and students with lower high school GPAs and SAT scores.

We also found some promising and not-so-promising trends in course-taking. Since the California Promise Program and Graduation Initiative 2025, almost every campus has increased the number of freshmen taking 15 or more units in their first term.

figure - More CSU Students Are Taking at Least 15 Units in Their First Term

While course-taking has increased for all students, many gaps remain between groups. In fall of 2019, 47% of white students enrolled in 15 or more units, compared to 39% of African Americans and 41% of Latinos. There is an 8 point gap between first-generation college students and their peers, and there is a 6 point gap between Pell Grant recipients and their peers. The good news is that early course momentum seems to help all types of students. This suggests that closing gaps in opportunity could help close gaps in outcomes such as on-time graduation.

We suggest enabling and facilitating more students enrolling in full course-loads. Campuses are using their California Promise Program pledges, in which students who stay on track to graduate in four years receive priority registration and other benefits, and many are pre-enrolling incoming freshmen in 15 units and/or reporting a change in how students are advised. Campuses should also figure out how to increase course enrollment among students from historically underserved groups. These strategies may be different than the ones being employed currently.

We also suggest additional resources to help campuses meet increased demand for courses. Increases in course-taking increase the need for resources. A student opting for 15 units instead of 12 units pays no additional tuition. This means that campuses must provide more courses with no additional tuition money. In recent years, colleges have used their additional Graduation Initiative dollars to meet increased demand for courses. The state could consider additional funding for more units to offset the revenue disadvantage for colleges enrolling more students in more classes.

The pandemic is making these tasks harder—advising, online courses, and student need, and funding have all changed a great deal. It will be important to continue to monitor course-taking to see if the great strides in early course-taking are continuing. We will monitor the impact of early course-taking and other big changes—such as eliminating remediation—on graduation rates and graduation gaps.

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