By RACHEL LIVINAL
Sylvia Carrothers is beginning her fifth year of teaching this school year. But it took an even longer period to complete the education she needed to launch her profession.
To earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and her teaching credential, Carrothers spent eight years at Fresno State. Five of those years were spent working on her bachelor’s degree.
Carrothers, who is now a resource teacher at Winton Middle School in Merced County, is not alone in spending more time than expected at a California State University campus. A new report from the education watchdog group Campaign for College Opportunity shows the CSU system is falling short of graduation goals it has set for each campus, including the three campuses in the San Joaquin Valley: Fresno State, Stanislaus State in Turlock and CSU Bakersfield.
The goals the CSU system hopes to achieve by 2025 include having 70% of new students earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, with 40% doing so within four years.
A four-year college degree once was thought of as the norm, but many students take longer for various reasons, such as needing to work, changing majors or having trouble getting into the courses they need.
Across CSU’s 23 campuses, just over 62% of students earn a degree in six years, and 35% do so within four years.
In the Valley, Fresno State is closest to reaching the six-year goal, with 69% of students doing so, followed by Stan State at 65% and CSU Bakersfield at 56%.
For the four-year goal, Stanislaus is highest among the three campuses, with 37% of students finishing on time; followed by Fresno at 35% and Bakersfield at 30%.
Campuses making up for COVID setbacks
According to Ben Duran, the former president of Merced College and now executive director of the nonprofit Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, the pandemic slowed progress for many students – something that was impossible to have predicted when CSU set its graduation goals back in 2015.
“It's one thing to set goals 10 years ago and saying ‘In 2025, we're going to graduate this many people,’ and then not be aware of all of the things that might be happening to impact those goals,” Duran said.
The experience of isolating during COVID has led to a “lack of engagement” across the field of education, according to Xuanning Fu, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State. “We are making it up gradually.”
And while Valley campuses are short of the graduation goals, there has been progress.
At Fresno State, Fu said the school is offering extra instruction and tutoring for classes that have higher rates of failures.
And at CSU Stanislaus, where the second-most declared major among freshmen is “undeclared,” the university created a program to “guide those freshmen to explore what they want,” says Tracy Myers, the student retention coordinator for student affairs.
The idea is that students are able to explore a variety of fields during their first two years of general education work rather than focusing on courses in a specific major that they could later realize is not a good fit for them.
And at CSU Bakersfield, the four-year graduation rate for first-time students has improved by 15% over the past seven years.
Jennifer McCune, CSU Bakersfield’s director of enrollment services and university registrar, said part of that jump could be attributed to dual-enrollment courses that allow high school students to earn credit for high school and college at the same time.
“College credit gives them a feel for the rigor of college coursework and what to expect,” McCune says.
Campus relationships improve student success
Community colleges appear to boost student success in the Valley, with many students spending their first two years at a community college campus before transferring to a CSU school to complete their bachelor’s degrees.
At Stanislaus and Bakersfield, at least 45% of such transfer students graduate in two years. Fresno, at 34%, is still short of the statewide goal.
Campus staff say the Valley’s CSU campuses collaborate closely with local community colleges, a relationship that benefits the students they have in common, said Stuart Wooley, associate vice president for academic affairs at Stanislaus State.
“The staff here know the staff there, and some of the people that work here used to work there, and some people that work there used to work here and so we have these relationships with them,” Wooley said.
Duran, of the higher education consortium, said local pride in the Valley’s CSU campuses plays a part in encouraging students to apply to a school and stick with it.
“When you get into Kern County, you'll see people on the street wearing CSU Bakersfield Road Runner T-shirts,” Duran says. “If you get into Fresno, half of Fresno wears the red shirts.”
At Winton Middle School, Carrothers thinks back on the challenges she faced getting through college – failing some of her early classes, switching majors and spending long hours commuting from Atwater her first two years. But, she stuck with it and, in the end, it paid off, she said.
“You have to get your certification in order to teach,” she said. “And if I would have dropped out after my second year, I don't know where I would be.”
— Rachel Livinal covers higher education for KVPR in Fresno and the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced. This story was published in partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan community newsroom. To get regular coverage from the CVJC, sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.