CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY once again saw slight improvements in graduation rates this year among first-time and transfer students despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing many students to complete their programs online.

But concern remains around closing graduation equity gaps between low-income and students of color with their peers across the 23 campus system.

New data released Friday shows the four-year graduation rate for entering freshmen increased to 33 percent — up from 31 percent last year. In 2015, the CSU system created Graduation Initiative 2025, which set a goal to increase the four-year graduation for first-time students to 40 percent and the six-year goal to 70 percent. The six-year graduation rate also increased by one percent to 63 percent.

“It’s very heartening and we’re very proud across the board,” said Jeff Gold, assistant vice chancellor of student success initiatives, research and innovation for the system. But Gold cautions that this group of students — the Class of 2021 — doesn’t give enough indication of how the coronavirus pandemic affected graduation. Administrators continue to wait and see how the pandemic will affect graduation rates for last year’s freshmen and sophomores, and this year’s entering classes.

The system also saw rates continue to improve for transfer students.

  • The two-year graduation rate for transfer students remained the same at 44 percent from last year. The 2025 goal is 45 percent.
  • The four-year graduation rate increased by one percent to 80 percent. The 2025 goal is 85 percent. (The rates measure graduation from when a transfer student started at the university and not from when they first entered community college.)

CSU released the new information during its annual Graduation Initiative 2025 convening where Chancellor Joseph Castro discussed how the campuses would continue trying to close graduation equity gaps.

The system saw equity gaps increase for underrepresented minority students, including Latinos, and low-income students. The gap in graduation rates for underrepresented minority students is a 12.4 percentage point difference from their peers. And for low-income students, it’s a 10.2 percentage point difference from their peers.

However, the system didn’t release any data on those gaps between low-income and students of color, and their peers.

“This has always been a top priority,” Castro said. “We have a moral imperative to do better for our students.”

Castro said the campuses would launch a re-enrollment campaign with goals to bring “underserved students” back to college starting in spring 2022

“The students who came to us over the last couple of years during the heart of the pandemic have left the CSU,” Gold said. But the system wants to follow San Francisco State University’s example and get the other campuses to identify and re-engage those students, he said. SF State has had some success in seeing students return to college, Gold said.

Castro also announced that the system would begin offering high-quality digital degree planners by June 2022.

Those planners would give students the power and freedom to schedule their courses or change majors, in partnership with their advisors.

“It will also cut down on confusion and better guide students to make better decisions to get to a degree,” Gold said.

Finally, the system wants to improve student outcomes by targeting those courses with large enrollments of underserved students and high failure or withdrawal rates. Those courses could be redesigned, offer students more tutoring, or lead to more professional development for the instructors that teach them.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.

Ashley A. Smith, EdSource