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Valley CSUs falling short of graduation goals. But some campuses are still trying

Sylvia Carrothers teaches her class of 8th graders during the first day of school in August. Carrothers grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and attended Fresno State.
Rachel Livinal
Sylvia Carrothers teaches her class of 8th graders during the first day of school in August. Carrothers grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and attended Fresno State.

WINTON, Calif. – Sylvia Carrothers is a resource teacher at Winton Middle School in Merced County. Earlier this month, she began her fifth year of teaching.

It took her 8 years to complete her bachelors and masters degrees and get her credential at Fresno State.

Carrothers says she failed some general education classes, switched degrees three times, and commuted from Atwater for her first two years of school – but in the end, she finished, she said.

“You have to get your certification in order to teach… and if I would have dropped out after my second year, I don't know where I would be,” she said.

Carrothers started and ended her college career at Fresno State, and is one of many college alumni who have graduated from one of the three California State Universities in the San Joaquin Valley.

But the campuses are facing graduation rates that are lower than where the state university system would like them to be.

A report by The Campaign for College Opportunity shows Fresno State, for example, may not meet any of the statewide graduation goals set for 2025. CSU Stanislaus and Bakersfield, on the other hand, are only expected to meet one goal.

“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,” Ben Duran, the executive director of the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, said.

He says various things – like the pandemic – could have gotten in the way of graduation goals for students and campuses.

Catching up with graduation rates

Statewide, the CSU would like to see 70% of first-year students graduate within six years, and 40% of them in four.

In the Valley, Fresno State is almost reaching the threshold for graduation within six years – which is at 69%. Among Fresno State students graduating within four years, it is 35%.

The numbers are lower at CSU Bakersfield and Stanislaus. In Stanislaus, 65% of students graduate within six years and 37% within four. In Bakersfield, 56% of students graduate within six years and 30% in four years.

“The whole world in education is [experiencing a] lack of engagement due to the COVID,” Xuanning Fu, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State, said. “We are making it up gradually.”

Despite being behind in reaching CSU graduation goals, Valley campuses have still seen some improvements.

Fu says at Fresno State, extra instruction and tutoring is offered in 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.” The idea is that instead of taking classes for a specific college major, students are able to explore what’s available during their first two years of general education.

And in the last seven years, CSU Bakersfield saw one of its graduation rates for first-time students jump 15%.

Jennifer McCune, CSU Bakersfield’s director of enrollment services and university registrar, said part of that jump could be attributed to dual enrollment courses which are offered to high school students.

“College credit gives them a feel for the rigor of college coursework and what to expect,” McCune says.

Community colleges also appear to bring out some success for student graduation in the Valley. Community college students help make up what is called “transfer students” at universities. At Stanislaus and Bakersfield at least 45% of transfer students are graduating in two years, and helping meet one of the CSU graduation goals.

Relationships can help campuses

Stuart Wooley (left) and Tracy Myers (right) know a lot about each other, and they often collaborate to help students cross the finish line to graduation.
Rachel Livinal
Stuart Wooley (left) and Tracy Myers (right) know a lot about each other, and they often collaborate to help students cross the finish line to graduation.

Campus staff say the universities in the Valley often collaborate closely with community colleges in the region. Stuart Wooley, associate vice president for academic affairs at Stanislaus State, says the established and years-long connections play an important role in helping students.

“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 says.

Carrothers, the schoolteacher from Winton, also says feelings around community colleges have grown positively in the last ten years.

“I think from when I graduated [high school] to now, is a huge change,” she says. “With a lot of parents that I've come across, [the stigma] has gone away.”

Carrothers said family relationships matter when it comes to educational success. She said attending a university depends on whether it means leaving home.

“I don't know if it's just the Hispanic families but they are very against their kids leaving home – for anything,” Carrothers said.

The report from the Campaign for College Opportunity showed Valley campuses did well in closing gaps among different student demographics – and even ranked among the top 10 compared to the rest of the campuses.

Duran, of the higher education consortium, says attachment to regional colleges can help get students to stick with school.

“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.”

Back in the classroom, during seventh period, Carrothers teaches eighth grade students who are struggling academically. As universities try to improve their graduation rates, a college future is already in the minds of her students.

When asked if they think they can get to college, one student, Alejandro, says, “I could. I’m pretty smart.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.