A photo of students at CommencementNearly half of 2016-17 first-year students are on track to graduate in four years. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Last fall, 2,300 incoming Sacramento State first-year students made a commitment to take 30 units a year, allowing them to graduate in four years. Today, 1,680 of them still are on track, just under half of the total number of first-year students on campus this year.

For a university with a four-year graduation rate hovering around 9 percent, says Jim Dragna, executive director of University Initiatives and Student Success, it’s a remarkable improvement.

“That’s a number that would stagger other universities and has gained a lot of state and national recognition as well,” Dragna says. “We’ve been asked frequently how we’ve done it.”

The answer? Changing the campus culture so students know that if they want to graduate in four years, the University will support them, then deliver on that promise. That, in turn, has changed student expectations, allowing more of them to believe that timely graduation is attainable.

The University already has seen significant improvement in its graduation rates, with current projections indicating a 3-percentage-point increase in the four-year rate from 2016 to 2017, to nearly 12 percent; and a 5-percentage-point increase in the two-year transfer graduation rate, to approximately 32 percent. More than 5,300 students are eligible for graduation this semester, the most-ever for a Spring Commencement.

Dragna oversees Sacramento State’s “Finish in Four” program, which was launched last year as part of the CSU’s systemwide effort to improve four-year graduation rates. In exchange for their commitment, Sacramento State provides students a range of benefits designed to help them stay on track, such as once-a-semester meetings with an academic advisor to review courses and degree progression, and special incentives such as vouchers and discounts for campus programs and services.

“Sixty-six percent of students in (the Class of 2020) expect to finish in four years,” Dragna says. “That changes expectations not only for the students but also the University. We now have a pool of students who want to finish in four years, and as a result, we need to meet that expectation.”

Part of meeting that expectation involves improving access to the classes students need to graduate. The University this year added 658 new course sections. And because taking classes during the summer also can play a big role in helping students stay on track, Finish in Four pledgers have been given priority Summer Session registration and are eligible for the Provost Graduation Initiative Grant of $1,000 toward their Summer Session tuition and fees.

For most, the additional units come at no additional cost: CSU tuition is the same for all students who take more than 12 units per semester. The benefits, however, are clear: Students graduating in four years instead of six save up to $13,800 in fees and have up to $11,000 less debt. Because they start their careers sooner, they earn an average of $100,000 more in their lifetimes than graduates who finish in six years. They also are more likely to graduate and have a higher GPA, and because they spend more time on campus, they make more connections and report greater overall satisfaction with their college experience.

The University has seen a dramatic rise in the number of incoming first-year students taking 15 units in their first semester: 61 percent did so in Fall 2016, compared with just 20 percent four years ago.

This fall, Sacramento State will promote the “Through in Two” program, which similarly encourages transfer students to take 30 units per year to complete their bachelor’s degrees in two years. Transfer students who take 15 units a semester, or 30 per year, are seven times likelier to graduate than those taking fewer than 12 units.

Karen Kaur Dhillon, a sophomore liberal studies and economics major who got involved last fall with Finish in Four as a student advocate, says she has seen the culture change on campus in just one year. Her peers tell her they wish such a program had existed when they were first-year students, and across the University, 15 units per semester quickly is becoming the accepted standard.

“Students often think that they can’t graduate in four years, because the culture has been, ‘You’ll graduate in five years, or you’ll graduate in six years,’ but we’re changing it to four years because we believe in them,” she says. “Sometimes all it takes is an incentive to push them toward taking 15 units.”

For first-year civil engineering student Jomari Fernandez, signing the pledge served as extra motivation to take a full load of classes and a reminder that graduating in four years is possible if you stick to your commitment.

"It made a difference," he said. "When you sign a pledge, you can feel like you really have a goal."

Ensuring a timely graduation starts with helping first-year students arrive on campus fully prepared for college, another area in which Sacramento State has made great strides through its "College Ready: Beyond the GPA" outreach campaign to high school students and their families. The number of students in the incoming class who will require remedial math courses is expected to drop from 40 percent to 20 percent.

To learn more about Finish in Four, visit csus.edu/excellence/finishinfour. – Jonathan Morales

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