Fast Tracked

The results are coming in from a multiyear push to increase graduation rates — and they look promising

Back Longreads Aug 28, 2018 By Steven Yoder

On her first day on Sacramento State’s campus last fall, 18-year-old Mariana Arreola accepted a challenge. Her orientation leader pitched new students on taking a pledge to finish their bachelor’s degrees in four years (or for students transferring from community colleges, two years). Those who did would get priority course registration, a grant of up to $1,000 for summer courses, discounts on campus goods and services, and more in-person academic advising. “They basically kind of broke it down as, ‘If you commit to Sac State, Sac State commits to you,’” Arreola says. “I thought that was really cool — that kind of sold me.”  

In her first year, Arreola (the first in her family to attend college) finished a full load of 15 credits both semesters and is on track to make good on her promise.   

How UC Davis Improved Its Four-Year Graduation Rate

In 2004, only 34 percent of UC Davis students were graduating in four years.
So the school ramped up its investment in academic advising. It hired an executive director to oversee the effort, a first among UC schools — and brought on about 30 more advisers, says Vice Provost and Dean Carolyn Thomas. It also expanded support programs for first-year students and tripled the number of seats in first-year seminars — short courses covering eclectic topics designed to help students shape their interests and connect with like-minded faculty and peers. Faculty identified bottleneck classes and offered new course sections. They also pared down degree programs with course-heavy requirements. Today, the four-year graduation rate stands at 58 percent.

“The cost of attending the University of California is high, and students are motivated to use their time efficiently,” says Thomas. “They expect us now to put into place rational systems.”

Evidence shows that the more time a student takes to get a degree, the less likely they are to get it: As the months and years pass, they have children, assume more responsibilities, get promotions or just run out of money — and so they drop out. There’s also robust evidence that having more residents with bachelor’s degrees boosts an area’s economic performance, but the share of the population in the Capital Region with a college degree is below the national average.

One strategy for raising that percentage is getting more students to an on-time degree, meaning four years. Sacramento State is two years into a 10-year plan to improve its four-year graduation rate, and the Los Rios Community College District is testing changes designed to help its students transfer in two years and get a bachelor’s degree in four. While initiatives focused on speed do raise questions of maintaining quality education standards over time, initial results show what’s possible if students get the right kind of incentives, messages and help.


Delay hurts everyone, even when students do get a degree. It means fewer class spots in a system that’s already turning away thousands of in-state applicants. And more time costs students thousands of dollars: Sacramento State calculates that those who graduate in six years pay almost $14,000 more in fees, accumulate an extra $11,000 in student debt and forgo about $100,000 in earnings.

Take Sac State alumnus Greg Allen, 24, who recalls a single choke point that he says kept him from graduating in four years. In his first semester in spring 2015, he needed a communications class to graduate. But course sections filled up shortly after registration opened. Desperate, he showed up to class for five straight days to see if another student might drop out. It didn’t happen, and by the time he gave up, other in-demand required courses had also filled up.

It wasn’t the only time Allen couldn’t get into a class he needed, and he couldn’t get financial aid to cover summer courses to make up time. So he ended up graduating in four-and-a-half years. But he says he feels lucky because when his professors would do in-class polls asking students how long they expected to take to finish school, the biggest group consistently said six years.

At least two of the Sacramento area’s public postsecondary systems have struggled with on-time completion rates. For Sacramento State, the latest available federal data (for the entering class of 2011) show its four-year rate at just 9 percent. (UC Davis graduates 58 percent of its students within four years, a 24-percentage point improvement since 2004. See “How UC Davis Improved its Four-Year Graduation Rate” on page 78.)

Community college numbers are tracked differently since students can either graduate with an associate degree or transfer to a four-year school to finish a bachelor’s degree. For the four schools in the Los Rios District (for the entering class of 2014), federal data show that the three-year transfer rate averaged 10 percent for the students who were tracked. That’s not unusual: Across all California community colleges, less than half of students graduate or transfer out within even six years — a “troubling sign” for the state’s higher education and workforce development systems, according to a report last year from the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

But it’s too simple to just blame the schools for low four-year rates — big chunks of their student bodies run up against huge hurdles slowing their race to the finish. Research shows that first-generation, low-income and older students (who are more likely to have family and other responsibilities) face more challenges finishing a degree once they start. Thirty percent of Sacramento State’s undergraduates are the first generation in their family to go to college, and 31 percent of its undergraduates are low income. At American River College, 36 percent of students are age 30 or older. Of Folsom Lake College’s students, 45 percent work more than 20 hours a week. About 1,300 students at Sacramento City College speak something other than English as their primary language.


In 2016, Sacramento State hired its first-ever “graduation czar.” What first caught Jim Dragna’s attention wasn’t just the 9 percent four-year graduation rate, it was that it had been that low for 30 years.

Systemic problems were certainly one reason: Dragna acknowledges the many stories of students like Allen not being able to get into required courses.

But another part was cultural, he says. With so many students up against difficult life challenges, faculty advisers were telling them not to overdo it by taking a full course load — that would give them the space to study, attend to work and family, and get any academic remedial help they needed.

Sacramento State is trying to remake that culture by offering students incentives and support under the “Finish in Four” initiative launched in 2016. Priority registration and financial incentives are only part of the package for students like Arreola who take the pledge.

Mariana Arreola, a second-year student at Sac State, took a pledge and is on track to graduate in four years. photo: fred greaves

The school has added 89 new faculty, 12,000 classroom seats and 659 new course sections to do away with bottleneck courses, all at a cost of about $4.3 million, Dragna says. Predictive analytics software helps the school use big data to pinpoint — based on early scores or class absences, for example — who might be running into trouble. Support personnel then are dispatched to get help to those students, a practice known in academia as “intrusive advising.” The school’s Smart Planner software and additional course sections let students plan their classes around work and family obligations, while staying on track with their graduation plan. For example, Arreola says that if she plugs in less than the full number of credit hours for a semester, a little warning flag pops up letting her know that she’ll need to take a heavier course load to graduate on time.

The results to date indicate a turnaround. In the pre-pledge year of 2012, only 27 percent of students attempted 15 hours in their first semester, Dragna says. By 2016, 64 percent of incoming freshmen took the pledge, and by 2017, that was up to 84 percent. Even students exposed to the finish-in-four message later in college improved their performance: For the class that entered in 2014, 12 percent graduated in four years by 2017, a 3 percentage-point jump over 2016. The school has set a goal of a 24 percent four-year rate by 2025.

Meanwhile, Los Rios campuses have been simplifying the route to a degree as part of a push by community colleges statewide. The legislatively authorized Associate Degree for Transfer program, started statewide in 2011, lays out a clear pathway for students to earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year school for their bachelor’s degree: If students finish the prescribed set of courses totaling 60 credit hours, they’re guaranteed admission to a California State University school as a junior and get priority admission to their local campus. Among the first cohort of ADT students statewide who transferred to a CSU, 48 percent graduated within two years, compared with 31 percent of all undergraduate transfers, says district Vice Chancellor of Education and Technology Jamey Nye.

Related: Los Rios vice chancellor, Jamey Nye on college completion rates

Additionally, to improve student readiness, Sacramento State and Los Rios are using a $2 million innovation grant to develop an integrated system that gives Los Rios students who plan to transfer to Sac State access to the school’s Smart Planner software to begin planning their coursework ahead of the transfer.


Some in education worry about an exclusive focus on on-time graduation, including UC Davis Vice Provost and Dean Carolyn Thomas. “A four-year graduation rate as a goal can be really damaging,” she says. “If what we’re going to do is just be really focused on throughput instead of quality, we’re not going to be the engine for [students] and their communities to have opportunities. … If it’s only a four-year emphasis and not an emphasis on life-changing learning, then we’re not serving our students. And that’s the balancing act.”  

She’s not alone: In a 2012 article for the journal Liberal Education, Debra Humphreys of the Lumina Foundation noted that an exclusive focus on efficiency could cut students’ access to critical educational experiences — like study abroad and internships — and tempt colleges to dumb down their requirements.  

Dragna says he’s aware of concerns about how efficiency will affect quality and that the school is closely monitoring student learning. The perception that Sacramento State is finding ways for students to finish more quickly by lowering standards is “the furthest from the truth,” he says. According to Dragna, Sac State has seen no drop in student performance as measured by GPAs, and the school’s retention rate between the first and second year actually increased from 80 percent in 2015 to 83 percent in 2017 — a faster increase than for public four-year schools nationwide, whose retention numbers have increased only 2.6 percent since 2011. Counterintuitively, “students tend to respond to higher expectations,” Dragna says.

While Los Rios works to boost graduation and transfer rates, it is also testing a revamp of how it handles students unprepared for college-level work. Traditionally, entering students who don’t have passing high school grades or adequate placement exam scores in math or English have to take noncredit prerequisite courses before they can take for-credit classes — a big barrier to moving through on time. A Sacramento City College pilot program allows those students to take a “corequisite” support course concurrently with the for-credit course. So far, 80 percent of students who go that route are getting through the course successfully, compared with about 60 percent who take the traditional prerequisite.

Sacramento State, the Sacramento City Unified School District and area community colleges also have an ongoing joint project to cut the number of students coming out of high school who need remediation in the first place. For example, Nye says that Los Rios professors share syllabi and course outlines with K-12 teachers so they’ll know what will be expected of their students once they hit college.


Increasing the region’s number of college graduates would be a shot of adrenaline for its economy. A 2015 study found that the average bachelor’s degree graduate boosts their local economy by $278,000 more than someone with a high school diploma over the course of their lifetime.

The percentage of an area’s residents with a bachelor’s degree is “the single most important indicator for community economic health,” says Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. That number stands at 32 percent in greater Sacramento, according to a February GSEC report. Nationally, about 34 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. (Census data show that about 11 percent of those in Sacramento city have something more than a bachelor’s degree.)

Upping those rates could help woo more investors to the area. Companies like Google and Amazon “typically won’t look at a community until your college education attainment numbers [for bachelor’s degrees] are around 36, 37 percent,” Broome says.

Arreola hasn’t backed off from her commitment to graduating in four years: She’s further cranked up the number of credits she’s taking for this fall’s semester to 16. She says she may lean on campus support services — tutoring and academic advising — to get her through. “It’s going to be a tough, tough semester,” she says. “I am a little bit scared, but it’s really going to help me in the long run.”