In an interview with Xpress, San Francisco State University Interim Provost Jennifer Summit sat down to discuss the CSU Graduation 2025 Initiative. The initiative aims to “raise attention rates, strengthen student learning and improve student experience at all levels,” according to the “Student Success and Graduation Initiative” website. The goal also includes getting 33 percent of freshmen who start at the University to graduate within four years and getting 49 percent of transfer students to graduate within two years, according to initiative metrics.
Xpress: Do you think it is fair that we’re putting more pressure on students in this high cost of living area, knowing that most students have to work in order to be able to come to school here? And do you think it’s fair that we’re helping to fund it through the tuition increase?
Summit: Most of our students who graduate actually graduate in a little over five years and what’s wrong with that? Nothing. But if you’re not taking 15 units a semester it is very hard to finish within four years. So is it fair to ask students to graduate sooner? I’m saying that’s a “red herring.” Our issue is not that students are taking too long to graduate, it’s that our students are not getting to the finish line. 35 percent of students who start here as freshmen leave before their junior year, 35 percent of our students who come in as freshmen do not make it to their junior year. 24 percent do not enroll as sophomores, that is our problem. So let’s create a campus culture and learning environment that supports our lower division students so that they can thrive and succeed as upper division students and we will have addressed our problem. This isn’t about making students graduate faster, it is about helping them to the finish line.
In regards to how the University would help students get to the finish line successfully, and on how to get the most of their money for their education, Summit offered the following comments:
Summit: On average our students who are graduating are taking 135 units, so they are paying for an extra semester. So how can we help our students?… We don’t want to speed them through, but it would be good to remove some barriers that we create for them, and some of those barriers are taking classes that they don’t need. For example, we ask our students, ‘why do you take classes that you don’t need?’ And one of the top responses that we get is that the courses that they did need in order to graduate were all filled up, so they take other classes in order to keep financial aid. Another thing is that they are taking classes that they think are going satisfy requirements, that it turns out don’t. So those are two examples of barriers… and those to me are artificial barriers in that those are imposed by us. And these are two barriers that we can address that make things a lot easier for students.
Xpress: I’m not saying you should encourage students to stay forever, but there was an old-school mentality about being able to go to university and being able to explore. But now it seems so defined and difficult to for anybody to explore any other interest. So is there a barrier into the overall college and learning experience?
Summit: I think the CSUs force students to choose a major far too early. When knowledge is changing so quickly, and as a university we have to be on top of those changes, how could you be expected as a senior in high school to know what you’re going to major in when chances are, the job that you get after graduating doesn’t exist yet? The first year of college needs to be a time not only for coming to understand the full array, and that is what the idea of the university means, it’s to have a goal of universality. So it comes back to redesigning the first year of college. And if you are forced to choose something at 18 before you come to college, you are not necessarily going to be making the right choice for yourself. So students who come in undeclared actually retain and graduate and have better rates of graduation and retention than students who come in and stick with one major and the same for students who change their major up until junior year. But I don’t necessarily recommend that.
Xpress: So are you making changes for that first year of college to counterbalance that Grad 2025 initiative?
Summit: We have to address this. I want to understand a little bit more the nature of the resistance to the initiative so that I can tell you more about my understanding of what is important about it and how we can build it in the student experience.
Xpress: For students, it is not what they think it is. It is not pushing us faster, it is kind of revamping the whole program instead. I think it gets lost in translation.
Summit: We do want to make it possible for students to graduate faster. It is expensive to stay here longer than you intend to, I get that. And we get this question from faculty, which is, ‘our students have complicated lives, why push them out faster?’ But it is important to weigh that if you are going to stay longer than four years, do it consciously. If they are staying longer than four years, I want it to be for a choice that they are making and not a mistake that we’ve made… and barriers that we have put up.