December 9, 2002 Vol. VII, No. 8



Improving Graduation Rates Becomes a Front Burner Issue

University Task Force to Submit Final Recommendations to President in Early 2003

Shortly after arriving on campus in July 2000, President Jolene Koester identified four priority goals that she wanted to guide her work and that of the campus community in the coming years. Those priorities are: In this issue, we continue a series of articles exploring the progress the campus has made on these priority goals during the past two years. This article focuses on university efforts to improve student graduation rates.

After nearly two years of focused attention on improving student graduation rates at Cal State Northridge, a comprehensive set of 15 recommendations has emerged that would, if adopted, make a dramatic impact on students' experience at the university and on the academic structure of the campus.

The recommendations are coming from a 24-member Graduation Rates Task Force, co-chaired by Provost Louanne Kennedy (left)and Faculty President Michael Neubauer, that expects to submit its final report to CSUN President Jolene Koester by the start of the spring 2003 semester. What has emerged from the process, task force members say, is a clearer understanding that while there are many outside factors affecting students' graduation rates over which the campus has little control, CSUN still must do everything it can to streamline and improve its own policies and requirements that impede students' progress.

"As an institution, we have to commit ourselves to our students' graduation," said Faculty President Neubauer(right). "This is something we have not paid enough attention to. The culture of this institution has to change to reflect a new attitude‹we are here to help our students graduate. That has to become a major part of the culture of CSUN."

"The president and the task force have put this issue on the front burner, and made it a priority for the campus. And that's important," added Assistant Provost Penelope Jennings, another task force member. "We will be recommending strategies to assist students through the educational process, while maintaining a quality educational program."

The near-final report of the task force notes that the university, like some other Cal State campuses, has unacceptably low student graduation rates. For first-time freshmen, only about 28 percent graduate from CSUN in six years or less, while only about 41 percent of transfer students graduate from CSUN within four years of arriving here.

As part of the task force process, CSUN conducted a survey of nearly 1,800 students in fall 2001 asking about obstacles to graduation. The most cited factors were the need to work (65 percent), financial pressures (53 percent), the number of courses required in majors (50 percent), inadequate advisement (39 percent) and the size of General Education requirements (37 percent).

Despite the current reality, nearly all CSUN first-time freshmen expect to graduate within four to six years, while transfer students typically expect to graduate within two to four years, the task force report notes. In addition, the report notes that political pressure is building, particularly at the federal level, to increase accountability in higher education and focus on graduation rates.

The task force's 15 recommendations fall into three categories: policies, advisement and pedagogy. Once the final report is submitted to President Koester in early 2003, some recommendations can be directly implemented, while others will be referred to the appropriate faculty governance committees for consideration.

The first change resulting from the task force's recommendations already is coming in the spring 2003 semester with a new university policy on students' repeating courses. The changes are aimed at preventing students from needlessly repeating courses to improve their grades, and to encourage students' having difficulty to seek advisement.

Under the changes, students will only be able to repeat courses for grade replacement, up to the current limit of 15 semester units, in classes where they received a C- grade or lower. Only one repeat per course for grade replacement will be permitted. And any student seeking to enroll in the same course for a third or subsequent time regardless of the reason will have to obtain permission from an associate dean.

The report says the changes will bring CSUN's course repeat policy into line with those elsewhere in the Cal State system. The report also notes that students, particularly in certain colleges, have been needlessly retaking courses where they already received passing grades, mistakenly thinking doing so will improve their employment or graduate school prospects.

Among the draft report's other key recommendations:

"I think what the task force has done is put the problem on the map," Neubauer said. "If people don't think the recommendations we've come up with are the right ones, then the challenge to them is to come up with better ones that will effectively address the problem."

The latest version of the report and other information is available online at www.csun.edu/academic.affairs/grtf.htm.


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