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Cal State Unveils Plan to Increase Graduation Rates for Students of Color

An initiative aimed at increasing the graduation rates of under-represented students at the nation’s largest university system has critics concerned some provisions will dilute quality education and exacerbate existing gaps.

The California State University Board of Trustees on Wednesday unveiled the plan, part of the national Access to Success project, aimed at cutting by half the gap in the college-going and graduation rates of low-income and minority with that of Whites by 2016. CSU also wants to increase degree attainment by 8 percent overall, officials said. However, it remains to be seen how the state will implement goals with a strained budget.

All 23 campuses will be tasked with devising a strategy for their individual institutions to raise the six-year graduation rate from 46 percent to the national average of 54 percent. The goal is to graduate 7,000 to 8,000 more students each year, CSU Chancellor Dr. Charles Reed told the Los Angeles Times.

CSU faculty and staff praised the goals but cautioned that excluding them from the process may result in misguided methods.

“I will confess that we’re surprised there has been no conversation with faculty, student and support personnel about what would help students graduate in a more timely fashion,” said Dr. Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association. “The truth is that people on the ground know the problem and the solutions from our daily interactions with students. We know two issues account for most of the difficulties students are having in graduating.”

Taiz, a history professor at Cal State, Los Angeles, said the availability of classes and financial concerns are the primary obstacles to degree completion.

“For years now, students have made presentations to the Board of Trustees about how (fee) increases … often force them to either seek out paid employment, which is not healthy for their studies, or to drop out all together.” 

The initiative may reduce the number of general education courses to allow students to move on to major coursework sooner, restrict class withdrawal and establish learning communities, officials said. Reed said campuses may employ assessments and improved advising to track students on their way to a degree.

“There are simple things we can do, like having faculty take class attendance and if a student misses a second or third time, call or e-mail to find out why and get on it before they get so far behind, get a failing grade and give up hope,” Reed told the Los Angeles Times.

CFA Vice President Dr. Kim Geron, of CSU East Bay, raised concerns about what impact the college completion initiative would have on remedial programs that prepare students for college-level work.

“Graduation rates cannot be achieved on the cheap by downsizing or eliminating long-established and highly successful fundamental classes. Incoming freshman need these courses and the best way to meet their needs and achieve their dream of a college degree is to allow them the opportunity to take the remedial courses,” Geron said.

“My specific concern is that this educational committee is placing a higher value of expediency rather than on quality education,” CSU Dominguez Hills student Adan Alonzo said during the board meeting.

Responding to the comments, Trustee Herbert Carter made an emotional rebuttal to the claim the proposed changes would harm students of color and prevent those of low economic means from reaching academic success.

“This appears to me to be something of a pre-emptive strike to prohibit this system from bringing about necessary changes in a program that has not served everyone well over the past 30 years,” Carter said, linking concerns raised Wednesday about remedial education to an upcoming board meeting on that topic. “We need to do more to help young people, particularly people of color who come into this system underprepared by the inadequate high school they attended.”

There are no calculations as to the cost of the graduation initiative that will affect CSU’s 450,000 students, but Reed has given some indication that stimulus money may be used to reach the goals President Barack Obama has set for the nation’s higher education system.

Carter reiterated the CSU’s commitment to bringing all of California’s students under an equitable, efficient and cost-effective plan.

“I want it clear that we will do what we can to help all of our students be successful and we should not shy away from change,” he said. “Simply because we have done something one way for the past 30 years does not mean that we can’t find some better ways to try and do it differently. “

The Access to Success is a project of the National Association of System Heads (NASH) and The Education Trust and includes 24 public higher education systems including CSU.

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