CSUN Implementing Strategies to Elevate Graduation Rates, Student Success

  • CSUN is part of Graduation Initiative 2025.

    CSUN is taking part in the Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to increase the retention and graduation rate for students through the CSU system. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

With more than 330,000 alumni, California State University, Northridge has always focused on student success. From the year 2000 first-time freshman cohort to the 2009 cohort, CSUN’s six-year graduation rate grew 10 percentage points to 50 percent. Across the California State University system, campuses are raising the bar on graduation rates for first-time freshmen and transfer students and working to eliminate the opportunity gap for underrepresented minority students and students receiving Pell Grants.

“All of the CSU campuses and, indeed, universities all over the U.S. are being asked to graduate students in a timely manner and demonstrate that students have specific competencies when they graduate,” CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison said. “We are assessing our best and most promising strategies and scaling those evidence-based programs that will increase retention and completion rates.”

California State University’s Graduation Initiative 2025 intends to raise retention and graduation rates system-wide. By the year 2025, the CSU aims to raise the overall six-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen (based on the freshman cohort of 2009) from its current 57 percent to 70 percent. System leaders also aim to boost the four-year graduation rate from 18 percent to 40 percent, as well as raising community college transfer students’ two-year graduation rate to 45 percent and four-year rate to 85 percent.

The initiative looks to increase equitable outcomes by eliminating the opportunity gap between traditionally underserved students — African-Americans, Latinas and Latinos, and American Indians — and their white and Asian-American counterparts, and between low-income and higher-income students.

While CSUN has seen significant gains in graduation and retention rates, the university is pursuing even greater success measures for all students.

“It is certainly true that CSUN’s students come from diverse backgrounds with a diverse set of responsibilities, challenges and life experiences,” CSUN Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Yi Li said. “However, all of our students share one thing in common — the pursuit of a higher education to better their life and the lives of their families and communities. That is why we are committed to providing new opportunities and resources to help students complete their degrees.”

At a student success Town Hall meeting on Oct. 28, the discussion revolved around how to best support CSUN students — who constitute one of the most diverse university student bodies in the nation — given the myriad challenges they face in completing their college degrees. According to the CSUN Office of Institutional Research, more than half of CSUN’s undergraduate students are from traditionally underserved communities. The first-time freshman cohort of 4,499 enrolled this fall at CSUN holds an even higher ratio of historically underserved students, at just over 67 percent.

Tens of thousands of CSUN students are also first-generation college students, making up about two-thirds of the undergraduate population. More than half are Pell Grant recipients, which means they come from families whose annual income is at or near the federal poverty line of $20,000 for a family of four.

“While current Graduation Initiative 2025 efforts are anchored primarily in instruction and academic support, the reality is that it will take the efforts all areas of university, working together, to help remove barriers to student success and provide the support needed so that each student can complete his/her degree objective,” Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students William Watkins said.“The saying, ‘It takes a village,’ truly describes the effort that will be required of us all, if we are to succeed in achieving something special!”

CSUN’s campus-specific goals include increasing four- and six-year freshman graduation rates by at least 16 points and the four- and six-year transfer graduation rates by at least 10 points, as well as eliminating the opportunity gap.

CSUN Associate Vice President for Student Success Elizabeth Adams said these efforts seek to remedy the variety of academic and non-academic factors that present barriers to students’ graduation, including financial insecurity, shortfalls in institutional and cultural support for first-generation college students, and disparities in minority representation within higher education.

“The message we want everyone to understand is that the CSU and this campus is committed to doing everything we can so students who can and want to finish more quickly, finish more quickly,” Adams said.

Starting in January 2017, CSUN will begin implementing short-term and long-term goals and strategies, funded by a $3.35-million, one-year grant from the CSU. The plan includes improvements in enrollment management and academic advisement, scholarships for students nearing completion to take summer classes, and faculty training using innovative data technology.

Enrollment Management and Scholarships for Summer Classes

A little more than $1 million will go toward funding for summer courses for students who are set to graduate in fall 2017, and who came in as freshmen in fall 2013 or transferred in fall 2015 — so they can graduate in the summer. Summer scholarships also will be available to freshmen, sophomores and juniors in good academic standing who are six units or fewer away from advancing to their next year in school. (To qualify, students must have a FAFSA on file.)

According to Adams, about one-quarter of the fall 2015 freshman class ended the year with between 24 and 30 credits, putting them on track to graduate in six years. Taking just two summer classes would put them on track to graduate in four years.

“We aren’t asking them to do something that they are not capable of, because they finished the semester in good standing, having earned that many [credits]. They are good students, let’s help them get to their degree faster,” Adams said.

In the spring, CSUN will offer more sections of high-demand courses such as general education (GE) and “senior capstone” project classes, to ease students’ path to graduation.

Advising and Faculty Development

CSUN also plans to hire nine new advisors for all the colleges, who will focus on increasing freshmen retention and undergraduate graduation rates. Faculty and staff across the university — including advisors, department chairs and the deans in each college — will work to be even more in tune with the needs of students, Adams said.

CSUN also will hire one more counselor at University Counseling Services, to meet the increasing demands for therapy, Adams said.

Selected faculty are participating in a “Data Champions” program, where they will learn to research the students in their own colleges and use the data to create population-specific strategies for reaching out to those students — to help identify students who may be falling behind in the pursuit of their degree, or not taking enough courses.

Closing the Opportunity Gap  

Closing the opportunity, or achievement, gap between traditionally underserved students and their counterparts and between lower-income and higher-income students is part of the CSU’s 2025 initiative. At CSUN, this gap is referred to as the “opportunity gap,” said Kristy Michaud, director of CSUN’s Office of Student Success Innovations and an associate professor of political science.

“[The choice in language] makes it clear the gaps in outcomes are related to the differential opportunities students have had, often before they set foot on our campus, and are not due to deficits in students’ efforts,” Michaud said.

Support from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) will fund a faculty training program called the “Inclusive Innovations Series,” open to faculty from every college who teach classes that reach large numbers of students, such as GE courses that have high rates of non-passing grades. Faculty will learn specific strategies that have been shown to increase success rates and to close gaps between underserved and better-served students.

“[The training] empowers the faculty by teaching them to use the CSU Student Success Dashboard to identify the rates of non-passing grades and opportunity gaps in their own classes,” Michaud said. “A lot of people are simply not aware these kinds of gaps exist, so we are raising awareness about them and helping faculty learn strategies that can be used to close them. We want to help people talk about this problem, we want them to take ownership of solving this problem; this is a problem that can only be solved collectively and collaboratively.”

At the Town Hall meeting on Dec. 9 moderated by Harrison, participants and a panel of CSUN students and staff discussed students’ experiences and campus resources for student success. Attendees shared their personal experiences with being first-generation college students and using resources like the Learning Resource Center, the Office of Disability Resource and Educational Services, and University Counseling Services. The Town Hall also gave an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to exchange perspectives and strategies on how to spur better engagement and more transparent dialogue.

The Town Hall series was launched to create a campus-wide dialogue on the challenges faced by — as well as the successes and strengths of — CSUN students.

The next Town Hall, “What You Call It Matters — Opportunity Gaps at CSUN,” is taking place on Feb. 10. More information will be released in early 2017.

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