Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · November 2020

Getting to Graduation on Time at California State University

Jacob Jackson

This research was supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Family Fund.


The majority of freshmen entering California State University (CSU) system graduate, but most do not do so within four years. Graduating later has many costs-from the tuition and associated costs for extra years of schooling to forgoing years of entering the workforce-and students from low-income families as well as students of color are more likely to graduate later than their peers.

Through system-wide policies like the Graduation Initiative 2025 and the California Promise Program, CSU is promoting strategies to help more students graduate on time. One key strategy is to support student efforts to take a full course load early in their college career.

Using a combination of campus-wide and student-level data, we examine the relationship between course-taking and on-time graduation. We present the following findings:

  • Many students do not take enough units to graduate on time. Students take an average of 13 units per term, with many taking the minimum 12 units to be considered full-time for financial aid. Historically, only about a third of students enrolled in a full course load of 15 units, but recent increases show almost half now enroll in a full course load.
  • More students may graduate on time if they take a full course load in their first term and first year. Students who enroll in a full course load in their first year-or even first term-are more likely to persist and graduate on time than students who do not. Across all student demographics, a strong relationship exists between first-term and first-year course loads and on-time graduation.
  • More freshmen are enrolling in full course loads, but gaps remain. Over half of all freshmen now take a full course load thanks to programs and policies aimed at graduating students on time. These changes may help CSU reach ambitious graduation goals. But course-taking gaps remain between historically underrepresented students and their peers.
  • Students in all groups benefit from full course loads, but in different ways. Four-year graduation rates have increased, but gaps between underrepresented students and their peers have grown. Those increased gaps are mirrored by the gaps in course-taking. However evidence suggests that students across groups benefit in other outcomes, such as persistence, by taking full course loads, and helping these students take on more courses could help to close gaps in on-time graduation.

More students may succeed and get to graduation on time if California can find ways to incentivize and support full course loads. For universities, this could mean aligning state funding around the goal of more course-taking. For students, this could range from stronger advising to extra financial support for those working to help their families or working to pay college costs.

While campuses that have seen enormous changes in course-taking behavior can serve as models for others, all colleges must monitor opportunity gaps to ensure equitable course-taking and support for students who might need it. And as the state continues to adapt to COVID-19, colleges must focus on providing the necessary courses that will allow students to continue working toward their degrees.


Access Affordability Completion Equity Higher Education Population