Forever an undergrad: Most Sacramento State students can’t graduate on time, but does that make the school a dropout factory?

Local college part of statewide trend that should result in financial penalties, says think tank

UC Davis student Sofia Molodanof is racing against the experience of California’s college student body. Working toward an English degree with a double minor in sociology and communications, the 20-year-old expects to graduate within four years.

These days, she would be the exception.

The vast majority of California’s college students—including the majority of Sacramento State undergrads—do not graduate on time. Two-thirds of college students fail to graduate within six years of enrolling at 74 percent of the state’s public schools and 60 percent of its private institutions, according to separate reports by Third Way, a self-described “centrist think tank.”

The rates are so bad at Sac State that university President Robert Nelsen has said they “suck.” Under K-12 guidelines, colleges like his would be labeled “dropout factories.”

At both public and private institutions, roughly 20 percent of students can’t start paying down student loans within three years after leaving school, either via dropout or graduation, the Third Way reports say. And six years after enrolling, more than a third can’t find jobs that pay above $25,000 a year—the expected wage for high school graduates.

Using the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, Third Way found no correlation between the price paid to attend college and the quality of education one received. Its two reports—one for private colleges, one covering public institutions—did show top-performing universities shied away from taking Pell Grant students who come from low- to middle-income households and receive federal funding based on need and merit.

The colleges can do this because they receive equal Pell money whether “they have 20 Pell students on their campus or 20,000,” said Tamara Hiler, co-author of both reports and Third Way’s senior policy adviser for education.

She stressed the importance of a college degree for better employment, but wants to expose colleges that fail to provide the outcomes they promise. Some might blame the Scorecard’s ugly stats on lazy or unqualified students, but Hiler pooh-poohs that claim.

“[Colleges] are telling students that if you apply to this school, we’re going to provide you support and resources to finish,” she said. “I don’t know a single student who enrolls in a four-year college thinking they won’t end up with a bachelor’s degree.”

The UC system proved to be a rare exception to the low graduation trend. In Third Way’s rankings, UC Davis came 17th, boasting rates of 81 percent six-year graduation, 91 percent loan repayment and 70 percent placement in jobs annually making above $25,000, six years after enrollment. According to U.S. News & World Reports, 55 percent of its students graduate in four years. These are all comparatively good figures.

Forty-two percent of UCD students receive Pell Grant funding, three ticks higher than the national average.

Molodonaf is one of those students. An incoming junior, she expects to graduate on time, believing that to be part of the campus “culture.” And then, she plans to head to law school, debt free.

Director of the UC Davis Internship and Career Center, Marcie Kirk Holland, claims nearly 80 percent of students participate in internships, 20 points higher than the national average. Combined with focused curriculum, these internships push students through school to their preferred post-grad job.

“You can sit through upper division chemistry if you know that’s going to be part of what you need to do [as] a food inspector,” she said as an example.

Conversely, Sac State’s newly appointed “graduation czar,” Jim Dragna, said his college has a “cultural problem” that feeds into graduation rates of 9 percent after four years and 42 percent after six.

Dragna claims many students take fewer than 15 units for fear of becoming overwhelmed. But to graduate within four years, students must have at least 15-unit schedules per semester or they fall behind and get hung up on prerequisites. Among CSUS students that graduated in 2016, only 12 percent had done so in four years.

A “Finish in Four” program hopes to alter the culture. The program prompted nearly 70 percent of first-year students to pledge they would take 15 units during their first semester.

Students who sign on will be offered discounted classes for summer and winter sessions. Beyond this, Smart Planner and Platinum Analytics digitally streamline scheduling and Dragna claims these systems have already found 10,000 extra seats for next year’s students.

Fifth-year civil engineering student Austin Young says these changes are overdue. Though he earned priority registration, he claims that up to “50 people get turned away” from introductory courses. He has seen friends only be able to secure one or two classes in a semester and noted that there should be better financial literacy training for students taking out loans.

“A lot of the money goes to just whatever they want,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many hoverboards were bought.”

Meanwhile, Third Way says that students with less than $10,000 in student loan debt are the most likely to default, indicating that they likely dropped out before graduating and are now worse off than if they hadn’t started college in the first place.

(Third Way didn’t study for-profit schools because they felt these colleges already had a poor reputation. Case in point: California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris recently won a $1.1 billion lawsuit against for-profit Corinthian Colleges to repay defrauded students.)

In the future, Third Way’s Hiler hopes students armed with the reports’ information won’t apply to low-performing schools. She wants colleges to be responsible financially when students default on their loans. And if schools fail to improve, she proposes the federal government should deny them Pell Grants or student loans, a financial death blow.

But the worst-performing schools tend to take the most Pell Grant students. To combat this, she proposes that Pell recipients make up at least one-fifth of each school’s enrollees. And just like K-12 schools with lower-income student bodies, further funding could go to schools with higher Pell proportions, provided they use the money effectively.

In 2017, Congress will likely reauthorize the Higher Education Act, a bill that structures federal funding to colleges. And, after decades without regulation based on results, Hiler desires some accountability.

“Schools should have an opportunity to improve,” she said. “But the problem is that there are no incentives for schools to change their behavior. There’s no carrot or stick. Higher education is a marketplace. And right now, it is completely broken.”