James Dragna, Sac State's head of Graduation Initiatives and Student Success, says he expects the University's success in boosting graduation rates will continue. (Sacramento State file)
By Cynthia Hubert
Sacramento State is outpacing all other CSU campuses in improving graduation rates for freshman and transfer students, new figures show.
The success of the university’s “Finish in Four” and “Through in Two” campaigns during the past three years has allowed thousands of students to enter the workforce more quickly and resulted in millions of dollars in savings to individuals and the government, said Sac State graduation czar James Dragna.
“This university has dedicated itself to lowering barriers that in the past have hindered our students from being successful,” said Dragna. “We now know that they can succeed, and they are doing so at an increasingly higher rate.”
This year, 20.4 percent of Sac State graduates completed their course work in four years, up from 8.8 percent in 2016. The jump represents a 127 percent gain, the largest leap among CSU’s 23 campuses, data provided by Dragna’s office, University Initiatives and Student Success, reveals.
Sac State also leads the pack in improving two-year graduation rates for community college transfer students. More than 42 percent of transfer students earned their degrees in two years in 2019, compared to 27.1 percent in 2016. The 55 percent improvement is the highest in the CSU system.
With such successes, Sac State is climbing closer to the upper reaches of CSU's overall graduation rates. Its four-year rate, ranked 22nd of 23 campuses in 2016, ahead of only Los Angeles, is now No. 13. The University's two-year rate for transfer students, ranked 19th three years ago, has risen to No. 10 among in the CSU.
At a symposium in Sacramento last month, Chancellor Timothy P. White said CSU graduation rates have reached an all-time high as campuses have worked to remove administrative roadblocks and help students earn their degrees in a timely manner.
As part of CSU-wide Graduation Initiative 2025, campuses have added thousands of courses that are in high demand and necessary for graduation, and eliminated remedial courses that do not earn credits. They have added hundreds of academic counselors, who now routinely encourage students to enroll in at least 15 credits each semester. Students also are benefiting from summer school grants and new electronic platforms that help them plan classes and track progress.
Help like that has put Sac State student Emily Z. Gonzalez on track to a four-year graduation this spring with a degree in ethnic studies.
Gonzalez said she briefly hesitated when asked, during orientation, to enter into a “contract” that would put her on a path to graduate in four years. She is happy that she clicked “yes,” she said. As she persevered, Gonzalez received congratulatory emails. She got a T-shirt and mug when she was awarded a summer school grant.
“These things motivated me and showed me that this was more than a one-time announcement,” she said. “It showed me that Sac State actually is concerned with what I can achieve.”
Gonzalez, the first in her family to attend college, also discovered the university’s Educational Opportunity Program, which provided additional support, she said.
Her path was not easy, said Gonzalez, who also worked and volunteered while taking a full course load. “But with the help of God, my family and the support from Sac State, I did it.” she said.
Gonzalez said graduating in four years will allow her to start working in her chosen field sooner.
“It also lets me be an example to my sibling and to any female Latina,” said Gonzalez, who says she hopes to be a high school history and ethnic studies teacher, and has dreams of later earning master’s and doctoral degrees.
Jorge Orantes is another “Finish in Four” success story.
He received his degree in business administration and general management in June, three years and nine months after enrolling at Sac State.
“I had already set myself the goal that I was going to finish in four years no matter what,” he said.
Orantes' biggest challenge, he said, was getting into necessary courses that were impacted. He managed to finish thanks to creative scheduling. The experience “only made me work harder” to succeed, he said.
Orantes said he intends to pursue his MBA after working for a year or two.
Finishing his degree in four years “has helped me become the goal-driven individual that I am,” said Orantes.
White, the CSU chancellor, said at last month’s symposium that the graduation initiative clearly is bearing fruit. But “we must do even more” to bolster graduation rates and help more black, Latino and low-income students earn their degrees, he said.
Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen agreed.
“I am incredibly proud of the work that Sacramento State, especially our faculty and our advisors, have put into supporting our students to graduate on time,” Nelsen said. “We still have a long road ahead of us to get where we should be, but we are making the kind of progress that should make us all proud.”
Since 2016, four-year graduation rates at Sac State have improved for all groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, First Generation college students and those eligible for federal Pell grants.
But African American and Hispanic students are still graduating at lower rates than white students, an achievement gap that Sac State continues to attack with educational equity programs aimed at those groups, Dragna said. One example is Project INSPIRE, which offers peer mentoring and other services to Hispanic and other underrepresented students.
“I’m confident that we’ll reduce the equity gap significantly over the next two years,” Dragna said.
As part of its graduation initiative, CSU set goals for each of the system’s campuses. Dragna said Sac State has been assigned a goal of graduating 30 percent of its students in four years by 2025.
“We will be approaching that next year, and after that we expect to blow by it,” he said. The university already has surpassed the CSU goal for transfer students graduating in two years.
By the end of the Spring 2020 semester the state will have infused more than $250 million into the CSU graduation initiative. Data suggest the investment -- $15 million to Sac State so far -- is paying off, Dragna said.
Students who are graduating sooner as a result of the program are achieving cost savings that far exceed the state’s investment, Dragna’s office has calculated. Those who finished their degrees in 2019 in four years instead of six saved themselves and the government a total of about $58 million, he said. The figure is based on savings in tuition costs and state and federal government grant money, as well as an estimate of earnings from employment following graduation.
“It’s a cost savings that is benefiting our students, their parents and the community overall,” Dragna said.
During the past few years, Sac State has experienced a “culture change” that has transformed how the campus community views the importance of completing undergraduate degrees more quickly, Dragna said. Faculty, staff, and administrators now believe that all students can succeed, even those who face significant cultural, language and financial barriers.
“Students coming into this university now expect to graduate,” Dragna said, “and most expect to do so within four years.”
Dragna said he believes Sac State will continue its ascent. Among other things, the university is planning to implement a “strategic scheduling” program next year that automatically will assign newly enrolled freshman students to 15-unit course loads, putting them on target to graduate in four years. Counselors will work with them to schedule classes that further their interests and fulfill requirements. Students will be able to opt out of the program, but few are likely to do so, Dragna predicted.
“We’re continue doing what we are doing, helping our students to be successful,” he said. “It’s full speed ahead for us.”