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Student Flow Analysis: CSU Student Progress Toward Graduation

September 2009

Purpose of the Research on Student Flow Toward Graduation

The CSU Chancellor’s Office received a grant from the Lumina Foundation to engage in a year of planning activities to increase productivity within the CSU system. The grant is part of the Making Opportunity Affordable (MOA) initiative of the Lumina Foundation that is aimed at improving higher education productivity nationally. There have been several foundation initiatives in recent years that have focused on degree completion, college readiness, and developmental education. MOA encompasses all of those concerns but with the additional focus of increasing productivity. Much is known about how to increase student success but many of those strategies are prohibitively expensive, e.g., personalized support services and widespread supplemental instruction. The challenge, particularly with sharply reduced campus budgets, is to increase graduation rates while reducing the cost of producing each degree.

Our charge, as subcontractors for this MOA planning year, was twofold:

  1. Analyze the patterns by which students either proceed through stages toward degree completion or get off track – in order to determine what institutional efforts would have the biggest return in getting students on track and increasing instructional productivity.

  2. Conduct an in-depth analysis of CSU Campuses’ Actions to Facilitate Graduation (CAFG) to determine which of the many individual campus initiatives offer the greatest promise to the CSU system to increase graduation rates and numbers of graduates.

This work was intended to inform CSU efforts as the system works to improve graduation rates and productivity. The nation’s declining competitive position in educational attainment and the severe economic downturn create an imperative for finding ways to educate more students at less cost. The problem is acute in California. According to a recent analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, the state will need to produce an additional one million college graduates with a bachelor’s degree between 2005 and 2025 to meet projected employment demand.1 Currently, the CSU awards about 46% of the bachelor’s degrees in the state, making its share of the degrees needed to close the expected gap 460,000.2 To meet this goal, the CSU would have to award 28,750 additional degrees each year between 2010 and 2025—39% more than the number of degrees awarded in the 2007/2008 academic year.3 Now facing severe budgetary constraints, it is vital to find strategies that lower the costs of producing each graduate. 

This excerpt of the full report provided to the CSU contains the student flow analysis - part 1 of the charge detailed above. While the specific analysis of the CAFG initiative is of interest primarily to the CSU, the student flow analysis has widespread application to other higher education systems engaged in tracking student progress and success as a basis for optimally targeting intervention strategies to improve graduation rates. 

Framework for the Analysis 

We used an organizing framework to guide this study that is based on the concept of milestones, defined as intermediate outcomes that students achieve on the route to degree completion. Monitoring student progression through milestones is an emerging technique across the country that can provide institutional leaders with information about where to target interventions to help students succeed. If only graduation rates are monitored it is difficult to know why students are not graduating and, thus, what should be done to help more students graduate. Tracking the patterns by which students reach, or fail to reach, milestones can help institutions understand the barriers different students encounter at different points in their academic careers.

The second part of the framework (the details of which are not included in this report excerpt) involves locating various aspects of the CSU systemwide Campus Actions to Facilitate Graduation (CAFG) initiative along the milestone framework. The CAFG initiative includes 22 individual actions that can be clustered into certain categories of intervention, e.g., first year student support programs, curricular streamlining, major advising. Each category of initiatives can be understood to be targeted primarily at certain points in the continuum from initial enrollment to graduation. Flowchart 1 depicts student flow through milestones and indicates where various CAFG initiatives hope to intervene and reduce leaks in the pipeline to graduation. For example, some CAFG items are aimed at helping students to complete their general education requirements (by streamlining the curriculum) and others are aimed at reducing the “super senior” problem by restricting the number of units students can accumulate through course repeats.

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Authors: Nancy Shulock

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