Cal Poly programs aim to improve grad rate, shorten time to diploma

While Cal Poly has the best six-year graduation rate in the California State University system, it is significantly below its goals and falls well short of top universities in the nation in keeping students on track through the completion of their degrees.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong announced in May that he wants more students graduating sooner, with four-year graduation rates jumping from 40 percent to 75 percent in eight years and the five-year rate improving from 68 percent to 90 percent.

Cal Poly measures its graduation rates by monitoring the “cohort” of freshmen who enter in the fall or preceding summer term and whether they go on to finish their degrees.

Cal Poly’s six-year graduation rate of 72 percent is the highest in the CSU system with San Diego State being the next closest with a 66 percent graduation rate. The lowest six-year rate in the system is Cal State Dominguez Hills with a 27.6 percent rate. Those numbers assessed the group that started as freshmen in 2006.

Widely considered the CSU system’s top school by reputation and in national rankings, Cal Poly hopes to compete against some of the best schools in the country.

“Why do we pick 75 percent (as the goal for a four-year graduation rate)?” Armstrong said in his recent speech. “That would put us among the top 100 universities in the country. I think that’s a good way to look at it.”

UC Berkeley and UCLA each notched a 71 percent four-year graduation rate, according to a U.S. News and World Report review published this year. And in recent years, those schools have consistently reported six-year graduation rates that hover around the 90 percent mark, according to their websites.

A university goal

Cal Poly has developed a multifaceted plan to improve and hasten students’ ability to complete their degrees. It includes adding faculty and high-demand classes, tracking student progress, offering coaching and giving seniors priority class registration.

Cal Poly’s president has said that the university’s goal of drastically improving graduation rates by 2022 is “a complicated goal, a tough goal, but a worthy aspirational goal.”

To assist the effort, a “student success fee” was implemented in fall 2012, after approval from students in an advisory vote. It provides about $14 million a year for additional faculty, tutoring and other costs to support areas that directly impact student graduation rates.

“The student success fee has been extremely important,” Cal Poly Provost Kathleen Enz Finken said. “Without that money, we’d be in much worse shape.”

The university’s incentives for hastening students’ graduations include the ability to grow enrollment by moving students through faster. That in turn means they can graduate more students with science majors, Armstrong said.

“California needs additional Cal Poly grads,” Armstrong said. “Over the next 10 years, there’s a (projected) shortage of 1 million bachelor of science grads in the state of California.”

For families, shortening the time to graduation can mean saving many thousands of dollars.

Plan to improve rates

During the past decade, Cal Poly has nearly doubled its number of applicants from 27,062 in 2004 to this year’s total of nearly 52,000.

To answer that demand, Armstrong has projected enrollment to grow by as many as 5,000 students over the next decade, but not without meeting certain conditions to facilitate the expansion — including improved graduation rates.

“It breaks my heart to see some of the students we turn away,” Armstrong said. “I know what this experience would mean to them.”

The university is employing several programs to help raise grad rates:

• On the teaching front, Cal Poly is seeking to hire about 100 new faculty members.

• To help students’ track their progress, an online PolyPlanner was launched during the winter quarter to let students know precisely what courses they need to finish their education. The planner also allows the university to see which sections are in high demand so that it might add faculty for those classes in a given quarter. “We can mine the data and predict the courses we need in the future,” Armstrong said. “Some would say, ‘Why weren’t you doing this earlier? Well, we weren’t. But we are now.”

• A Freshman Success Program, which started in 2010, provides coaching for students placed on academic probation in their first quarter. When students complete 75 percent of their coursework, the university will send notices with expectations that they graduate within a year.

• Seniors headed toward graduation are now given priority course registration. In past years, some seniors had used up their priority registration, requiring them to have to wait another quarter or two to finish.

Reducing required units

Another initiative the university is undertaking aims to reduce the minimum number of units required to graduate to 180.

The CSU Board of Trustees voted in 2012 to require students to complete 180 units to graduate but no more — unless the university can show the need for an exception for certain majors. (The board previously allowed more than 180 units.)

Cal Poly has 65 degree programs, and 22 of them required students to complete more than 180 units at the time of the CSU board’s vote in 2012, said Mary Pedersen, Cal Poly’s associate vice provost for academic programs and planning.

Pedersen said some accreditation standards outside the CSU’s jurisdiction make it virtually impossible to limit those programs to 180 units.

As part of an initial phase, the university reduced five of the 22 programs to the required 180 units, including agricultural science, and has petitioned the chancellor’s office to drop the totals of six other degrees to between 184 and 188 units.

The petition was submitted in April 2013, Pedersen said.

A second phase dealt with 11 Cal Poly degree programs with significantly higher unit requirements. Each of those, including multiple engineering degree programs, previously required more than 192 units. All have been reduced by four to nine units since 2012 but still don’t meet the required 180 units.

The university petitioned the chancellor on these programs in January. The chancellor’s office has not yet responded to either petition.

Cal Poly’s six-year graduation rates have mostly improved: The 2000 freshman class saw 67.0 percent graduate; among the 2002 freshmen class, 69.4 percent graduated; in the 2005 freshman group, 74.6 percent graduated; while in the 2006 freshman group, 72.2 percent graduated six years later.

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