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CSULB doubles down on students doing ‘more in four’

Cal State Long Beach is climbing the ladder to elite school status as timely graduation rates continue to rise. But some students argue they actually suffer from the fast-paced movement in-and-out of college.

The university system has shifted attention on its Graduation Initiative 2025, a $75 million plan to increase graduation rates while eliminating achievement gaps. This means getting freshmen out with degrees in four years, and transfers out in two.

Though the shift in focus to timely graduation aims to benefit students in the long run, it serves as a double-edged sword for those who seek additional educational enrichment from their college experience. This includes students who wish to change or add majors, such as psychology major Marhonda Green.

Toward the end of her second year, Green decided that she wanted to minor in criminal justice and forensic studies, but she was denied the double minor because it would extend her college career by a year. She was only allowed to move forward with one minor.

“I understand them wanting to guide us, but it’s like you have no choice,” Green said. “It’s like, ‘You have to graduate in four years. You have to get it together.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute.’ Some of us just need a minute to kind of figure it out. And that’s what I think college is for.”

This wasn’t Green’s first time dealing with educational goal changes. She started out as a chemistry major, but decided to switch to psychology halfway through her freshman year. Even though she had only been taking classes for one semester, she didn’t have an easy time changing her major.

“It took me an hour to convince my chemistry adviser that I wanted to go through with the decision,” Green said.

Four-year graduation rates for freshmen have been steadily increasing since 2009, with a 1 percent drop for the fall 2010 class, according to data compiled by the Institutional Research & Assessment office. There was an especially significant jump in these numbers between 2016 and 2017. A little over 16 percent of freshmen in 2012 graduated within four years and the next year, the number jumped to almost 26 percent.

Graphic by James Chow
CSULB four-year graduation rates have received their biggest increase within the past few years 5/19. This is due in part to the Graduation Initiative 2025.

The same trend holds true for transfer students. Data from the IRA shows that among students who began class during 2012, 30 percent graduated after the expected two years. This increased by 6 percent for the following class, which transferred in 2013.

“That was a big step toward getting there for sure, but there’s still more work to be done,” said Don Haviland, a member of the Highly Valued Degree Initiative 2025 Research and Evaluation Task Force. “If we [are] all sort of pulling on different parts of the wagon, we’ll get there together.”

The numbers are in line with the college’s mission of churning out “highly valued” degrees, which includes raising four-year graduation rates for freshmen and two-year graduation rates for transfer students. As it stands, the school has a goal of a 39 percent four-year graduation rate by 2024 (which applies to freshmen from 2020) and a 45 percent two-year graduation rate for transfers by the same year.

“It’s a big needle to move,” Haviland said. “It takes a lot of people working continuously.”

Improving graduation rates has been a goal for the college even before the CSU system implemented an initiative in 2015 to realign its focus toward equal academic opportunity, according to Haviland. Graduation Initiative 2025 has given more urgency to the issue, however.

This is something that Matthew Major, a mechanical engineering and physics major, also experienced at the beginning of his educational career.

“They will not let you pick a minor in something that isn’t beneficiary to the major you’re in,” Major said. “[The advisers] told me straight up freshman year, ‘Yeah, don’t ask us to do a minor in interpretive dance because we won’t let you.”

However, Major says it’s a fair trade.

“A major component of college is the experience,” he said. “I think that you should be able to open yourself up to broader things, but at the same time you’re here for a major purpose — you’re here to get the degree.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Bron Pellissier, director of Academic Engagement and Success for the College of Liberal Arts.

“We’re not denying people more education. More education is better, but [not] unpurposeful education just to take at an institution that’s really focused,” Pellissier said. “Does that mean we don’t want you to smell the coffee or the roses? Heavens, no. It’s just, how can we help you do that more quickly?”

The emphasis on timely graduation comes at a time when the university is seeing increasing record-breaking application numbers.

“Every time we extend a student for another potential icing to their cake — a little bit of value added — we’re denying another person getting into the university,” Pellissier said.

The push for timely graduation was a result of shrinking resources toward higher education nationwide, a change that Pellissier, who has worked at the university for 30 years, remembers well.

“It used to be education for life,” she said. “Now you can only stay so long at the party.”

Pellissier said the focus of college-based advising centers now is to advise students right as they “enter the gate” of the new direction the college is taking.

“Our centers [have] chosen to take the ‘let’s do more in four,’” Pellissier said. “If you’re here for four semesters, let’s look at what that means for you.”

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