By Timothy P. White
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) predicts that the state’s workforce will be short one million bachelor’s degrees by the year 2030. In the fall of 2016, the California State University (CSU) launched Graduation Initiative 2025, a bold effort to reduce that shortfall by doubling graduation rates, which, with growth in enrollment, will lead to an additional 500,000 CSU graduates with high-quality degrees over the next 12 years.
Through Graduation Initiative 2025, our faculty, students, and staff are being empowered as innovators. The CSU will lead public higher education in finding solutions to endemic, systemic challenges. One of those major challenges is how we ensure successful degree completion for students who arrive on our campuses intellectually capable yet underprepared for college-level work.
For more than 50 years, the CSU has proudly honored its mission to admit the top third of the state’s high school graduates. Every fall, 60,000 first-time freshmen arrive on one of our 23 campuses aspiring to earn a college degree and receive the lifetime of benefits associated with the achievement of that goal.
However, nearly 40 percent of those freshmen—25,000 students—are informed that they are not fully ready for college-level coursework and are placed in skill-development courses that do not count toward their degree. Most of these students come from traditionally underserved communities.
The unfortunate reality is that a number of students directed into a not-for-credit course see their academic progress delayed or halted altogether. Of the 25,000 students who arrive needing additional academic preparation in math, less than half will earn a degree in six years and only 10 percent will graduate in four years. One in four will not return for the second year.
This is devastating for the individual student. There is also a cost to California and the nation. Our state has invested many thousands of dollars in each of those students, either through a K-12 education or the funding that supports the operations of its public universities. The federal government invests in the form of Pell Grants—more than half of all CSU undergraduates benefit from this program.
For any student to begin their college education only to become discouraged and drop out is a waste of time and resources, not to mention a tremendous disservice to the student.
To see an improved return on student and state investment, last summer the CSU announced a host of policy changes that will improve student achievement and lead to more Californians earning a high-quality degree in less time. A major change is a revamp of the support structure for underprepared students in need of skill development.
Beginning in the fall of 2018, students who need additional academic support will be placed in courses that strengthen skill development but also are credit-bearing. Campuses will accomplish this through the use of co-requisite approaches and stretch courses. In the first model, students take two courses simultaneously, allowing them to refresh their knowledge while at the same time advancing their skills to show mastery of the subject. In the second, students enroll in a course that takes a subject and “stretches” the learning process across two terms. This expanded and immersive participation helps students master English or math concepts and make progress toward a degree.
Supplemental instruction or other support embedded or attached to the courses will also be crucial.
The CSU’s Early Start Program, a series of not-for-credit developmental courses available at all 23 campuses allowing students to begin critical skill building or polishing work prior to their freshman year, will now also offer credit-bearing general education coursework in written communication or mathematics/quantitative reasoning.
This is not an entirely new approach. In fact, the great majority of CSU campuses—21 of 23—currently offer such innovative courses in English and math courses. These courses are having a demonstrable effect on student achievement and are helping students move toward a degree.
Early innovators outside of California have implemented similar changes and seen positive results. The University System of Georgia successfully made the move to offer co-requisite math and English coursework. Research and pilot programs conducted at the City University of New York (CUNY) also support the use of co-requisite courses and have proven the efficacy of these models.
The CSU and our world-class faculty and staff will join the vanguard in reimagining how we work with underprepared students to facilitate their success.
Just as each CSU campus is a hotbed of innovation, public higher education as a whole must be more innovative. We must review the way we deliver education and serve our students and, when there are ways to improve, we must be original and break away from the practices of the past.
We have a moral imperative to educate Californians. California’s future depends on it, as does the nation’s.