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.Bridge the Gap

Cal State lags on key graduation and equity goals

California State University is not on pace to meet its own goals for increasing graduation rates by 2025 and continues to be challenged by racial achievement gaps, according to a report released Thursday.

Across the system’s 23 campuses, CSU’s four-year graduation rate nearly doubled since 2015 to 35% as of 2022, an impressive mark of progress. But, according to the report by the California nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity, CSU is also likely to fall short of self-imposed targets in other areas, including its goals to graduate 70% of incoming first-time students within six years and 85% of transfer students within four years.

At the same time, CSU has made scant progress in eliminating racial equity gaps. Students defined by CSU as underrepresented minority students—Black, Latinx and American Indian or Alaska Native students—graduate at about a 12% lesser rate than their white and Asian peers.

Graduation rates are also uneven across campuses, with some performing much better than others. Several campuses have yet to hit any of CSU’s graduation rate targets, including Los Angeles, Northridge and Sacramento, three of the largest campuses in the system.

“Without targeted, informed and differentiated strategies that provide the supports for Latinx, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native students to succeed, the CSU will fall short of meeting three of the four goals in the GI 2025 and will not have closed the gaps by race/ethnicity,” the report states, referring to CSU’s graduation initiative. “This would be devastating—not just for the students whose untapped talent has not been fully realized, but for the state of California and our nation, given the important need for educated workers of all backgrounds.”

The findings come as the system’s next chancellor, Mildred Garcia, is set to start her new role on Oct. 1 leading the country’s largest university system with 404,820 undergraduate students, of whom 53% are Black, Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native.

The report applauds CSU for its intention to improve graduation rates and eliminate equity gaps. But it adds that “more needs to be done to ensure that this dynamic vision is realized equitably across all CSU campuses so that graduation rates improve significantly for both first-time and transfer students, without regard for race/ethnicity or for the campus where they are enrolled.”

In 2016, CSU established its Graduation Initiative 2025, setting specific targets for increasing graduation rates for first-year and transfer students and eliminating racial achievement gaps.

Having increased its four-year graduation rate for first-year students from 19% in 2015 to 35% in 2022, CSU is on track to meet its goal of a 40% four-year graduation rate for that group, according to the report.

“I think that is obviously the one area in this grad initiative that’s just been incredibly stellar,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. “What it indicates is that there are a lot of full-time, first-year students that are trying to get in and through in a more traditional path.” She added that if CSU wants to get even more ambitious, the university system might consider setting a goal that 50% of first-year students graduate within four years.

But progress across the other key targets has been more modest. The six-year graduation rate for incoming first-time students has increased from 57% to 62%, well short of the 70% goal.

Among transfer students, the two-year graduation rate has jumped from 31% to 40% and the four-year graduation rate has increased from 73% to 80%. CSU’s goals by 2025 in those areas are 45% and 85%, respectively. According to the Campaign for College Opportunity report’s analysis, CSU will fall short of those goals if current trends hold.

Meanwhile, even though graduation rates have improved across all racial groups, there has been no significant progress toward eliminating achievement gaps. So far, CSU has made “little to no improvements in equity gaps at the system-wide level,” the report states. That’s also bad news for its overall graduation targets because without increasing the percentage of Black, Latinx and Native American students who graduate, “there is no pathway” for meeting those goals, the report states.

Among all underrepresented minority students, the four-year graduation rate for incoming first-time students has increased from 12% in 2015 to 28% in 2022 and the six-year rate has increased from 50% to 56%. But even with those improvements, those students are well short of their white, Asian and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander peers, who collectively graduate at a 42% rate within four years and a 68% rate within six years.

In addition to racial achievement gaps, there are also disparities in student graduation rates across different campuses. For example, among the 23 campuses, just seven of them have a four-year graduation rate of 40% or better for incoming first-time students and only eight graduate at least 70% of first-time students within six years.

The top-performing campuses are San Diego State, Sonoma State and Cal State San Luis Obispo, which are the only three campuses on track to have already hit all four targets for graduating first-time and transfer students.

A much larger group of campuses—eight of them—has not yet hit any of the targets. Those campuses are Dominguez Hills, Fresno, Humboldt, Los Angeles, Maritime, Northridge, Sacramento and San Marcos.

Siqueiros acknowledged that not all campuses are created equal. Each campus has different demographics and some have more selective admission criteria than others. The San Luis Obispo campus, for example, has among the highest graduation rates in the system but also has the lowest admission rate of any campus. “Obviously all of those factors are critical and important to this story,” she said.

To improve graduation rates overall, across racial groups and across more campuses, the report makes several recommendations to state lawmakers and CSU officials.

Lawmakers should request that the system report annually to the Legislature on its progress toward its goals while also ensuring that any budget proposals for CSU are aligned with those goals, the report says.

The report also calls on CSU system leaders, including the chancellor’s office and board of trustees, to identify strategies that are working at the top-performing campuses and scale those across the system. To improve the success of Black students, CSU officials should also implement recommendations made by CSU’s Black Student Success Task Force, including developing new enrollment and retention strategies for Black students, the report states. The report also says CSU should look for private funding, in addition to state funding, to help meet its goals.


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