Jim Dragna

Jim Dragna is Sacramento State’s new “graduation czar,” charged with taking inventory of the University’s graduation initiatives.

“What you want from a graduation czar is someone who is both student-centered and data-driven. Jim Dragna is that person,” says President Robert S. Nelsen. 

Dragna arrived at Sac State on Jan. 27 to find that the University’s four-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen is 8 percent, one of the lowest in the California State University system. The five-year rate is better, 32 percent, and the six-year rate is 46 percent.

Nelsen expressed his concern about the four-year rate in particular during his 2016 Spring Address in January, noting that the below-average results exist despite Sac State spending $4.7 million in 2015-16 on its 33 graduation initiatives.

Dragna, who also is a licensed psychologist, has just begun to examine the initiatives along with the additional efforts across campus to improve graduation and retention rates.

“Universities can change lives. They can change generations,” he says. “It’s not a problem of retention or success rates. It’s really understanding the students and their expectations, and helping them move forward on their journey. …

“We’re all on this journey together about how to help students be successful.”

Dragna came to Sacramento State from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he spent the past 3½ years as the director for student success. He arrived there a few months after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated the region, killing 185 people. Subsequently, the university had lost one-third of its students through attrition.

He was hired to increase student retention, and he created a “success paradigm” to help the university grow. As a result, Canterbury’s retention and graduation rates now are higher than before the 2011 earthquake, he says.

“They made a switch, which I think is in line with President Nelsen’s idea: They moved from being a university where they taught material and students learned to a much more holistic idea of creating a successful student-learning experience.

“So long as we have students who are succeeding and we do as well for students in fifth- and sixth-year graduation rates (as for the four-year students), then we’re creating a template that works ever more effectively, rather than trying to build something new,” he says.

The key, Dragna adds, is “trying to be surgical” with the 33 initiatives to address the CSU’s long-range goals for Sacramento State: by 2025, to increase the four-year graduation rate to 24 percent and the six-year rate to 60 percent.

“So the first bit of business is breaking down that statistic. We may find that there are a great many healthy components to that number, as well. That, and picking up the progress so the students who are here now really gain an advantage, and to be very cognizant of the fact that the types of programs we put in are within the budget of the University and allow for continued growth across teaching, learning, and research, and have an impact on the community.”

A background in psychology, a far-flung career

Dragna grew up in Miami, the youngest of four children and the only boy in the family. His father worked for General Motors as a car salesman and consultant. His mother was a homemaker.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in theology at Notre Dame, and a master’s and doctorate in counseling education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He did his clinical training as a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Denver and, over the years, has been in private practice as a psychotherapist.

Dragna met his wife, Janine, in Denver. They married in 1986 and moved to Fargo, N.D., where he was the director of the Center for Student Counseling and Personal Growth at North Dakota State University.

The Dragnas have three children: J.D., 26, lives in Tampa, Fla., and is completing his doctorate in counseling education; Danielle, 25, is a flight attendant for Delta Airlines and soon will move to New York City; and Peter, 21, is a student at Florida State University and is preparing to take his law school admission test.

All three Dragna children were featured extras in the 2002 movie Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

“My wife had a small extras part, but it was mostly the kids,” Dragna says. “In one scene, my older son dances with Ashley Judd. You can imagine what that did for his popularity in middle school.”

At the time, the family lived in Wilmington, N.C., where Dragna was the associate vice chancellor for student development and, earlier, the executive director of student development services at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Ya-Ya was filmed in various locations around North Carolina. Even today, Dragna says, his children won’t allow their parents to watch the movie with them. His son Peter also has another film credit: He was the voice of a “little boy” in the 1999 anime You’re Under Arrest: The Movie.

After a decade in North Carolina, the family moved to Tampa, where Dragna was the senior associate vice president for student affairs at the University of South Florida. They then went on to the University of Canterbury, where Janine led teams in the registrar's and scholarships offices.

As much as the couple loved New Zealand (their home in Lyttelton overlooked the deep-sea harbor, and they often watched ships traveling to and from Antarctica), they’re anxious to explore California, particularly as hikers.

In the meantime, Dragna is confident that he will be able to make a difference at Sacramento State.

“I have an opportunity to work directly with people who really have the capacity to change systems. I have an opportunity to have a clear voice and to be able to influence individuals about this whole idea and, more importantly, it gives me a distinguishable way of hearing what’s going on as well,” he says. 

“The president has named this position ‘the czar.’ I think that works because it gives student success initiatives an individual, a face, so that I can help learn and disseminate information, and create a central point of contact as we move in the right direction.” – Dixie Reid

In the media:

“Sacramento State graduation czar hired to improve completion rates,” The Sacramento Bee