The goal to graduate college in four years can seem daunting, with expensive courses and impacted majors. Some students at Cal Poly and other state universities take five, six or even more years to graduate.
But some help is on the way.
New funding approved by the governor and Legislature will grant the California State University system $6 million by 2021 to help pay for summer financial aid programs. The University of California system will get $4 million. The hope is that encouraging students to enroll in summer school will help them graduate faster.
Toni Molle, CSU public affairs director, said the funding will allow students to further their education by taking courses outside the academic school year.
“We are actively engaging the campuses to determine an implementation plan,” Molle said in an email. “But the funding allocated toward financial aid will be administered in the form of grants, allowing students to take additional coursework during the summers of 2020 and 2021.”
Molle said that the funding goes hand-in-hand with Graduation Initiative 2025, a program aimed at raising graduation rates.
Under that program, Cal Poly has set a goal of 2025 to reach a four-year graduation rate of 71 percent, according to Cal Poly’s Office of the Provost.
Cal Poly has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 82 percent for first-time, full-time freshman, CSU figures show. Those rates have improved over the last decade and are the highest in the CSU system.
As for what each CSU gets in terms of money, Molle said it has not been determined as of yet.
According to Gerrie Hatten, executive director of financial aid and scholarships at Cal Poly, about 60 percent of students attending Cal Poly receive financial aid, and most if not all are low to lower-middle income students.
Hatten said she believes students will be more inclined to enroll in summer courses if given the opportunity.
“Certainly for low-income students, having access to aid to assist with summer expenses makes the option of taking summer courses more affordable,” Hatten said.
Hatten said financial aid can help students reach their educational goals by providing additional funds and lessening the stress that comes with the cost of education.
“Sufficient financial aid can help decrease the amount of hours students may need to work to cover their costs and allows them to focus on their education,” Hatten said.
On top of this year’s state funding, Congress recently broadened the federal Pell Grant program to once again allow low-income students to use the grants in the summer.
How to improve graduation rates
Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, thinks the new funding is a start to improving graduation rates, but it doesn’t end there.
“This is one of many solutions toward completion,” Voight said. “There are a lot of factors in play. For one, its critical that institutional leaders accept students as a real priority.”
Voight said low-income students and students of color should become a priority for campus leaders. Leaders can use analytics to decide how to best focus their efforts, she added.
“They’re (Cal Poly) using data to evaluate their progress and to identify any racial, income or socio-economic gaps that they see in terms of outcomes,” Voight said. “They’re (Cal Poly) using that data to point a pathway towards improving their numbers and offerings to students. We see it in their leadership, data and an intentional outreach effort to students.”
Voight said enrolling more students in summer school could be a solution to the problem of lack of class availability hindering a student’s goals.
“If students concentrate all of their courses on fall and spring semesters without taking summer classes, then there is going to be more concentrated enrollment during those semesters. Where, if they’re encouraging students to take courses in the summer as well, it should be sort of rubbing out and smoothing out some of those bottlenecks that exist,” Voight said.
Cal Poly is on the quarter system, but the same issue applies, if more students are competing for class spots during fall, winter and spring quarters.
Armando Nevarez, an agriculture systems major at Cal Poly and an ASI board member, said it can be hard to graduate quickly because of the number of classes many students must take.
“Probably the biggest issue in terms of classes, in general, are how many units we require students to take,” Nevarez said. “Some majors, for example, electro engineering. They take a monumental amount of classes, so for them to graduate in four years is quite a lofty plan.”
A racial disparity exists between minority graduation rates and others, and Nevarez said summer classes at Cal Poly may not be best suited for those underrepresented groups. Even with new funding during summer for financial aid, some students would rather make money with their time during the summer than work toward finishing their degree.
“I, myself, am Hispanic,” he said. “The barrier is when it comes to cost, some students can’t afford the extra class or to take classes during the summer. I know many who live in Hispanic communities and they work on the fields.”
The aid will be split over the two years it is available and will be suspended on Dec. 31, 2021. If enough General Fund money is available to continue the aid, the suspension will be lifted for the next two years.
This story is part of a collaborative project between McClatchy and seniors in the journalism program at Sacramento State University. For more information about the program, or to send a message, visit facebook.com/sacstatejournalism.