Krisstina Caro, a freshman at California State University East Bay, has been on campus only once, to buy a hoodie sweatshirt at the campus bookstore. With all her classes online, she feels somewhat disconnected from the school and finds it frustrating that she can’t fulfill her hopes of meeting new people and joining clubs during her first year of college.

Nevertheless, she is doing well in her classes and is determined that the solitary nature of online learning will not wreck her freshman year and slow down her plan to graduate within four years. She has no intention of withdrawing for a semester or, worse, dropping out altogether.

“You have to make the best of a bad situation because you are not the only one going through it. Things could be worse,” said Caro, a human development major who lives with her family in San Lorenzo, just a 20-minute drive to the university in Hayward.

Freshman year has always been tough for some students across the 23-campus CSU system. Typically, about 15% do not return for sophomore year. And now the pandemic threatens to increase the number who will drop out. Despite Caro’s positive attitude, some others may be too frustrated with online classes. Others may feel family financial pressures that make college attendance too difficult now.

If that occurs in significant numbers, CSU could see reversals in its campaign to dramatically improve graduation rates by 2025.

The CSU system has seen success with freshmen even during the COVID-19 emergency and the switch to online classes in the spring. By this fall, the system’s first year dropout rate hit an historic low: 14.5% of those who had started in 2019 compared to 15.7 % of the previous year’s group. Seventeen campuses saw lower freshmen dropout rates while six showed higher rates.

A daily worry

Last year’s freshmen began with regular in-person classes and the chance to make friends and feel connected to a physical campus, with gyms, cafeterias and clubs, for a semester and a half until the pandemic changed things in March.

In contrast, current freshmen started fully online and have not had many opportunities to forge social bonds and ties to schools they may never have visited. So, experts say, their academic progress could be more uncertain even though barriers for some, such as commuting costs and time, were eliminated and the more flexible schedules of online education may better accommodate jobs and family chores.

“We worry a lot every day of this term about what the experience is like for those students, what it means for their college experience and what it means for their academic trajectory,” James Minor, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence, said of this year’s freshmen. “It keeps us up at night for sure.”

What happens during freshman year is very important since that is when most dropouts occur. With current CSU freshmen receiving a lot of special attention, Minor said he is optimistic that they will continue in school in generally strong numbers and that this online stretch will be “part of their college career but won’t be defining their college career.”

Seeking to retain students, many efforts are underway to help students feel more comfortable with online classes and to ensure access to mental health resources, financial aid and virtual counseling and tutoring focused on freshmen. Still, some freshmen say they can’t learn as well online as in-person and miss the campus social life too much. Some transfer to less expensive community colleges but are still counted as CSU dropouts.

Taking different paths

The pandemic took its toll on Dominguez Hills freshman Jesse O’Bird’s education and family finances. A history major who lived in Long Beach but never set foot on the university campus in nearby Carson, he disliked the online format and was at risk of failing a math class. He sorely missed face-to-face teaching and found it difficult to communicate with professors virtually. “I can’t really learn from sitting at my computer and listening to someone talk,” he said. He recently withdrew from school midsemester.

Money issues worsened matters. His stepfather lost his machinist job due to pandemic-related cutbacks and his parents moved in with relatives in Idaho, where his stepfather found a new job. O’Bird could not afford to live on his own and joined them. He is starting a job in Idaho in the same motorcycle parts company where his stepfather works. He is not sure about returning to college in the future. For now, he is relieved to be away from the “extra stress and mental strain” of online classes.

Jesse O’Bird recently withdrew from Cal State Dominguez Hills in his first semester and moved to Idaho. (Photo courtesy of Kate O’Bird-Irwin, via EdSource)

In contrast, Erika Lainez Arias of Los Angeles, is sticking with her child development studies at CSU Dominguez Hills. The campus gave her a laptop and a hot spot to take online classes. The university “is doing more than enough in providing a lot of stuff for students, and I appreciate that,” she said. Her classes are going alright although she said it is sometimes hard to communicate with professors. Socially, she has only visited with new school friends by phone.

Arias, who was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child, said she has never considered dropping out. “So far, I’m staying on top of my game,” she said. Online learning, she added, forces students to rely more on themselves, a possible asset for future studies and career.

CSU’s system wide freshman dropout rates have improved over the past decade or so. Those moved from 20.5% among students who enrolled in 2008 to 14.5% for those who began in 2019. Part of that progress is attributed to the abolishment two years ago of no-credit remedial courses required of some under-prepared students. Those courses were replaced with credit-bearing courses with extra tutoring.

However, recent dropout rates vary widely among the CSU campuses. The worst, 26.9%, was at Humboldt State, which has struggled with enrollment partly because of its relatively remote location in far northern California. The best, 5.8%, was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which enrolls an academically elite student body.

CSU Dominguez Hills and East Bay are tied at having one of the worst freshman dropout rates in the system: 22%. Yet, they also saw recent progress in keeping more freshmen enrolled into their second year. That is considered notable since, at both campuses, more than half of their undergraduates are the first in their families to go to a four-year college.

Three other campuses — Long Beach, Fullerton and San Diego — managed to keep their rates to about half that, at 11%.

Racial disparities persist, although those gaps have shrunk a lot over the past decade. Across the CSU system, Black students have shown notable progress since 2008, when about 30% of Black freshmen did not return for a second year compared to 17.3% for 2019.  Black students especially benefited from the end of non-credit remedial courses, officials said. The latest freshmen dropout rates for other groups were: 9.1% of Asians, 13.9% of whites and 16% of Latinos.

All the programs aimed at helping new freshmen with their online classes and other issues should lead more to return next fall, officials say. But huge unknowns remain with the pandemic, roiling politics and the economy, said Caron Inouye, CSU East Bay’s director of general education. “We are living in scary times,” said Inouye. “And a lot of students are experiencing stress. It makes it hard to focus on college when all that is going on.”

Among the recent changes, an automatic alert system lets counselors know midsemester when a student is at risk of failing more than one class; those at-risk students are referred to online counseling and tutoring support.

CSU East Bay and other campuses also went full press with mandatory online courses known as Foundations of Success that aim to get freshmen accustomed to university life and improve study habits. Without in-person lunches at campus cafeterias, these courses are also a way for students to socialize and feel a part of a campus they barely have explored, if at all.

Online education is not ideal, but these classes of 25 students or so and their smaller break-out rooms of five or six try to “build communication skills and relationships with classmates,” explained East Bay professor Andrew Yunker, who teaches several sections. So even though everyone wishes they were actually on campus, online connections help students “see that other classmates are going through similar problems,” Yunker said.

For example, he assigned his classes to keep a log of everything they did over 24 hours, including studying, eating, sleeping, exercising and watching TV and then slotting those activities into categories of importance. Students shared their results, raising issues of family illnesses, car breakdowns and having to tutor younger siblings.

Freshmen key to improving graduation rates

In 2015, the CSU system began an ambitious, decadelong effort to improve its relatively low graduation rates. The goals of the Graduation Initiative 2025 include increasing the four-year graduation for first-time students to 40% and the six-year goal to 70%.

The CSU system recently reported that its four-year graduation rate across all campuses rose to 31%, up from 27.7% last year. The six-year rate remained at about 62% this year. Those statistics were hailed as good news since they were earned while graduates had to complete degrees mostly online due to the pandemic.

The CSU will not back away from its graduation targets despite the pandemic, according to Minor, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor. However, he said there could be temporary backslides.

A particular challenge this year was the disruption current CSU freshmen felt during their last months in high school, he noted. With problems during the sudden switch to online high school classes, some students missed important class material, disengaged academically and arrived at CSU less ready for college than they would have otherwise, he said. Then, many CSU summer programs to bolster skills were canceled. In response, the university is having “pretty good success” this fall in providing extra counseling and tutoring and is striving to “engage them and keep them enrolled.”

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, the freshman dropout rate declined about 10 percentage points over the past decade, and continued that trend over the past year, moving from 23.2% to 22%.

Matthew Smith, its dean of students and interim associate vice president of student life, said while the switch to online learning “will definitely make it more difficult,” the campus will not dial back its efforts to keep students enrolled. “The work is already challenging. This brings a new twist to that.”

During the pandemic, freshmen need to feel connected to their campus, said Maureen Scharberg, CSU East Bay’s dean of Academic Programs and Services. “We want to make sure we do everything we can do as a campus to prevent that student from stepping away.” And if students still leave, they should feel welcome to return or to possibly transfer to a community college or elsewhere.

Emily Bus-Kwofie is doing well her freshmen year at CSU East Bay even with online classes. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

CSU East Bay freshman Emily Bus-Kwofie wishes she were on campus, rather than taking online classes in her family’s San Leandro living room. The pre-nursing student who emigrated from Ghana says too many classmates seem unwilling to participate in discussions and it is sometimes hard to connect directly with faculty.

Still, she intends to stay in college and thinks that most of her classmates will too, with the goal of a diploma and solid career.

“I don’t want to be living paycheck to paycheck,” Bus-Kwofie said. “It’s personally safer for me to go to college, have that under my belt and have some profession I enjoy. I want to be stable and know where I’m headed. That’s why college is always on my mind.”

Story originally published by EdSource.