State lawmakers are considering a request to extend funding of the California State University’s ambitious plan to improve the number of Black and Brown students who earn degrees in a timely fashion.

CSU Assistant Vice Chancellor Dr. James T. Minor says the $150 million the Board of Trustees is asking of the California legislature is an investment in the success of the system’s Graduation Initiative 2025, which seeks to increase the four-year graduation rate for first-time students to 40 percent and the six-year graduation rate to 70. When the initiative was launched in 2015, the completion averages for students who started as full-time freshmen were just 19 percent at the four year rate and 57 percent at six years. Graduation Initiative 2025 has six identified six priorities — academic preparation, enrollment management, student engagement and well-being, financial support, data-informed decision making, and administrative barriers.

The Sacramento OBSERVER spoke with Dr. Minor, who heads the project, about how the initiative is moving forward and the “historic results”it is having in its effort to eliminate equity gaps in degree completion.

Q: The CSU Board of Trustees recently met and discussed the budget. What are your thoughts on that?
A: We were all very pleased to see that the top priority for the Board, as demonstrated in this budget request, is the graduation initiative with also a specific focus on basic needs, mainly housing insecurities and food insecurity for our students and mental health services. Most people would argue that a budget is a representation of an institution’s priorities and values and for our number one priority in this budget to be getting students across the commencement stage and student success and supporting them, says a lot about the leadership of the Board and where CSU priorities lie.

Q: How is success measured?
A: We have some very clear markers by which we’re tracking our progress annually. That’s the four-year graduation rate, the six-year graduation rate and the two or four-year transfer rates, and also the ability of our system to completely close equity gaps between students of color and their peers. Those are the metrics that we’re tracking as a system and individually as our campuses move forward and those metrics make up our Graduation Initiative 2025 systemwide goals.

We’re doing pretty good. I would say that the distance we have traveled in the last five years has been remarkable. We are at the halfway mark and we expect to be successful. This has been a difficult season without question, but we are steadfast and we remain committed to our goals.

Q: What did education for Black and brown students at CSU look like prior to the Initiative and what does it look like now?
A: Number one, the institution’s ability to meet students where they are is very different. Maybe you and I went to college at a time when if you made it, if you didn’t, if you dropped out, if you struggled in your first year, something was ‘wrong with you.’ You didn’t try hard enough, you weren’t motivated. We didn’t take a hard look at what’s happening in the environment and what the institution neglects to do on behalf of students. One major difference is what the institutional response is to students once they arrive and so now when a student struggles in the first year or doesn’t return for their second year, we are asking the question, ‘what could the institution have done better to support students, to increase their chances of being successful.’ That’s a pretty significant shift.

The other thing is our ability to engage our students prior to something bad happening. Typically we didn’t learn about your struggle until you dropped out and didn’t return and we’d go ‘OK, what happened here?’ We didn’t hear that you failed two courses in your first semester until after you failed the two courses. I think now we’re able to look in a much more sophisticated manner, at students based on their profile walking through the door. Who is likely to struggle and what kind of support can we provide them along the way before they have a negative event in their first year or their second year or whenever it is and how do we provide additional academic support or package their financial aid differently so that it gives them a better chance of being retained and continuing to make progress toward their degree. It’s just being smarter.

Maybe when you and I were in college, if you needed support, you needed to raise your hand and maybe you needed to walk into some office, stand in line, take a number or whatever it was, to get that support. We’re much more capable now at identifying those students much more proactively and engaging them and not waiting until they walk into an office to ask if they need additional support. That all is a dramatic shift as we have pursued our goals with the graduation initiative.

Q: The word ‘profile’ isn’t always a positive one when it comes to African Americans. How is it used in this setting?
A: What I mean is a student’s academic profile. A student who goes to say, San Jose State University, who either arrived this August or arrives next August, we can now look at a student’s academic profile and make a smart judgement about them, about how to support a student prior to arrival.

Let’s take two students from Los Angeles who are both going to, say San Jose State. One student has a 3.85 GPA, has taken three AP courses, has dual enrollment credit and the student comes from, let’s just say a middle class household household where at least one parent has a college degree. The second student who is also coming from Los Angeles, comes from a low-income household has a 3.2 GPA, no AP courses, no dual enrollment credit, may have qualified for a fee waiver and may be the first in their family to ever set foot on a college campus. They may both be from LA, both admitted to San Jose State, and they both may be Black, but they have two very different academic profiles and there is no rocket science here, if you ask the question which one of those students are most likely to struggle in their first year academically, I think it’s the second student.

Before we would allow them both to show up on campus, we’d give them the exact same orientation program. We’d give them the very same registration opportunities and we would have treated them the same. Today we’re able to customize the support. It doesn’t mean that Student A doesn’t need any support; having a parent that graduated from college or taking AP courses doesn’t guarantee success. I guess what I’m saying is that it allows us to customize support in a way we just weren’t able to previously.

Q: Has the initiative allowed you to get to the root causes of why the gaps exist for Black and brown students?
A: The answer is yes, but the harder question or harder issue is how you mitigate those challenges. All of the socio-economic, health disparities that we see across the state of California and across the country, travel with students to college. I cannot tell you the number of students who arrive in college without a plan to finance their college education over four years or beyond the first year versus students who arrive where the family has done significant planning and they have the money put aside for all four years or five years if necessary. I don’t have to tell you who is most likely or less likely to be in that situation. It’s Black and brown students, those who are going to be the first in their family to go to college. That right there adds an element of stress. It adds an element of need and it changes the odds of being successful at college. Black and brown students that are most likely to come from LAUSD, Oakland Unified, in terms of their level of academic preparation, we already know what those disparities are in K-12. Those disparities follow students to college. In that first calculus course or biology course, whatever it is, who’s most likely to struggle based on the level of academic preparation? It’s most likely Black and brown students and those who are going to be the first and their family to attend college. We are aware of the causes of the disparities. We have to figure out what the institutional response is to mitigate those disparities in a way that gives students an equal chance of being successful and ultimately graduating.

Q: Surely there have been other programs. What’s different about Graduation Initiative 2025?
A: What, I think, is different is the fact that we now have quantifiable goals that are fairly public and they’re goals that we track. I’m not one to pat us on the back, we have a lot of work to do, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a public institution of this size, this scale, that has publicly declared the goal of completely closing the equity gap. It’s ambitious. The fact that that is now in the public discourse, we’re committed to it publicly, we’ve gone to the legislature and asked for resources and partnership and we’ve come out very publicly reporting our progress year over year. That, I think, is different. It may seem like a fairly mundane thing to do, but it has really gotten the attention of institutional leaders and our campus communities who know ‘next year we’re going to have to report on this, so how are we doing with our progress?’

That’s number one. The second thing we’ve done is really implementing a more sophisticated data analytics system to be able to pinpoint down to the academic department, down to the actual course in an academic department what the equity gap is for students in that course and that was something we had not been able to do previously. I shouldn’t say that we haven’t been able to. The technology has been available, we are now using it in a way to advance the goals. If I’m a professor, let’s just say in the math department, and there are five sections of calculus and in those sections we see a pretty big equity gap in terms of student outcomes in a course where Black and brown students are twice as likely to not pass the course compared to the other three sections. We’re now able to have a very delicate conversation about how we can support students in those courses and how we can achieve equitable outcomes across all five sections. That’s just the granularity and the specificity that we’re now able to operate with in terms of an institutional response and a focus on equity.

Last thing I’ll mention are sweeping policy levers at the system level. A couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago now, we announced that we were going to discontinue stand-alone developmental education courses; this was a major, major policy shift and a major undertaking. The CSU enrolls about 65,000 first-year students every year; about a third of them were assigned to the developmental education courses referred to as remedial. I don’t have to tell you who is most likely to be assigned to those courses– Black and brown student students who come from low-income how households and it was a major contributor to attrition. Students who began college in those remedial courses were at like a one in 10 chance of graduating in four years. In 2018 we completely discontinued that practice and that policy.

Now students who arrive maybe needing additional academic preparation in math or English are placed in college-level courses and then we supplement that instruction with academic support that they need. That has had a dramatic impact on how many credits a student accumulates in their first year which has a pretty dramatic effect on the time to degrees.

Whether you have to stay for five years or four years is a big deal for a lot of families. Those are the kinds of policy responses that we are also advancing to really improve equity across our system.

Q: How does this all look on a campus level? Is this something you have to sign up for or is it automatic based on student profiles?
A: It’s a bit of both. (We needed to do) a better job of proactively alerting students of the resources available to them. The tradition has been ‘Congratulations, you’ve been admitted. Orientation is on Thursday from 11:30 to 4:30, here’s everything you need to know about everything on our campus. Good luck.’ That’s a simplification of a traditional orientation, but my point is that it was a one-moment-in time opportunity to give you as much information as we possibly could about everything. Everything from the best schedule to how to get an ID or parking pass to the resources on a campus. By and large it was not the most effective way to provide that information and resources for students.

Q: There are a lot of eyes on equity right now. Does this initiative show that CSU was already ahead of the game on this?
A: I don’t know if we’re ahead of the game or if that’s the phrase I’d use. I think we’re probably one of the few university systems that because of the values or opportunities for equity have gone so far as to establish very public goals and to be very transparent about how we’re progressing in those goals year after year, I think that’s what is perhaps unique. For the largest and most diverse system in the country to do that and to publicly declare, again, the goals of completely closing the equity gap… I don’t think we’re ahead of the game, but I think it says a lot about the institution’s values to make such a public declaration.

Q: Education has long been a way up and a way out for African Americans. How has the CSU system provided that?
A: Two beacons for the CSU have been accessibility and affordability. There’s no doubt in my mind if you look at any survey, any metric, you’re going to find CSU campuses on the top of the list on any social mobility index. I think Cal State LA the last few years has been number one in the country on the social mobility index. The commitment that CSU has made to making education affordable is just remarkable. One of the reasons that Graduation Initiative 2025 is so important is that if a student actually earns a degree, that changes their life, it changes their family tree. That’s what’s so special, in my view, about the CSU. The transformative power of a degree is special and unique.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer