Launching Students into a Successful Future
Enhanced programs and courses create opportunities for more CSU, Chico students to graduate in a timely manner
by Marion Harmon | Illustrations by Paul Garland
It’s Saturday morning in late October on the fourth floor of the library. In twos and threes, first-year students come out of the elevator and sign in at a table staffed by a graduate student. They then head to the south side of the building, find their places at one of several long tables, and spend 15 minutes watching a video called “Greening the Ghetto,” a talk by activist Majora Carter about her fight against a large waste facility planned for an East River waterfront in the South Bronx.
Political science professor Ellie Ertle turns off the video and talks about environmental justice programs. “One woman inspired the Bronx community to create the Hunts Point Riverside Park in 2004,” says Ertle, also director of Civic Engagement at California State University, Chico. “Your goal is to put together a campaign plan in six weeks, with a policy solution like creating a new food plan for K–12 schools in Chico to fight obesity.”
This is the start of a two-hour Saturday session of the new U-Course Learning Community (combining English 130 and Political Science 155, both required courses) co-taught by Ertle and English professor Brenton Farrell. The course is part of the First-Year Experience program directed by English professor Thia Wolf. The class for 98 first-year students was created to promote student success and timely graduation. It, and seven other campus initiatives and programs, were funded by $537,000 in grants from the CSU Chancellor’s Office to redesign courses to enhance student learning.
A leader in graduation rate
“We are really excited about these grant-funded programs because they are helping us organize our efforts,” says Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Belle Wei.
These efforts are part of a long-term strategy at CSU, Chico to improve graduation rates while enhancing student learning and civic engagement, long-time strengths of the University. Students this fall were greeted with a new slogan, Aim 4 Four, and transfer students were welcomed with the new Take 2. These initiatives have been created to emphasize that graduating in four years for first-time freshmen and two years for transfers are attainable goals.
“Improving the graduation rates of our students signals a seriousness of purpose that should engage them and motivate us,” said President Paul Zingg in his spring 2013 address to campus. “Our message to our students should begin at the moment of first contact with them, while they are still in high school or even earlier, whenever they first begin to think about college.”
Key strategies that Wei emphasizes are improving academic advising; offering summer courses including the summer before freshman year; and helping students to set expectations, such as deciding on a major as early as possible. “If we don’t set a clear expectation to help them along the way, it is very easy for students to drift and lose focus,” she says.
Why is on-time graduation important? A few reasons include
- Students save money—each year they are in college costs an estimated $20,000, including living expenses, and each added semester can mean much longer repayment of student loans.
- Quicker entry into the workplace or graduate school means a faster start to achieving career goals.
- Graduating on time can impress prospective employers.
CSU, Chico’s many areas of strength—strong recruitment of graduates, high college rankings, national wins by student teams in areas such as business, engineering, and public policy—have created a solid foundation to help students get a high-quality education with a dedicated focus to achieving a degree.
“All members of the campus community play a part in helping our students graduate in a timely manner, and the University is making investments and changes to accomplish this goal,” says Zingg. “We want to achieve the best four-year graduation rate in the CSU.”
We want to achieve the best four-year graduation rate in the CSU.
CSU, Chico is well on its way, being fifth among the 23 CSUs with its four-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen. But at 19 percent—1 in 5 freshmen—that number is still low. Some of that is attributable to the fact that about 15 percent of students do not return for their second year.
Once students do start their second year at CSU, Chico, the likelihood of on-time graduation increases—30 percent of first-time freshmen who graduate from Chico do so in four years, and the average time to degree of first-time freshmen who graduate from CSU, Chico is 4.7 years.
But timely graduation is not the University’s only priority.
“The really important issue in all of this is that we don’t lose sight of quality,” says Bill Loker, dean of Undergraduate Education. “We don’t want to just pass students through and cheat them of the quality of their degree in an effort to get students to graduate in four years.”
Among CSU, Chico’s successful and innovative programs that enhance quality and aid with student persistence are effective student support services, the revamped General Education Pathways program, and the aforementioned First-Year Experience program. Redesigning courses (see sidebar “A Class in Action”) is also part of the strategy to keep students on their chosen educational path at CSU, Chico.
An early connection
The Summer Bridge program, part of the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP), is designed for first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. It is what it sounds like: students come to Chico for one week in the summer to take part in exercises that help them bridge into college successfully. Participants meet with faculty and staff mentors, experience a university lecture, and attend workshops on topics such as Life Management and Making Healthy Choices.
During the program, participants finalize housing plans, complete financial aid files, and register for fall classes. They take an English class preparing them to pass ENGL 130, the required writing course.
“Many students come to Chico feeling unsure of their ability to be successful here and are very concerned about how they will fit in,” says Chela Patterson, EOP director. “The experience of going through Summer Bridge helps develop the confidence needed to seek out support to help with any obstacle that our students might come across.”
A local area student said she appreciated the Office of Financial Aid representatives being available during lunchtime and the EOP staff who were available to answer questions. “She said she was nervous for the start of the fall semester because she thought Financial Aid and EOP would not always be there for her, and she was scared to figure things out on her own and maybe make a mistake,” notes Patterson. “One of the EOP advisors reassured her that she would always have our support and that she knew more than she gave herself credit for.”
The expansion of Summer Bridge through the Chancellor’s Office grant means that the program will serve more students and add a math component. In order to add math to Summer Bridge, the program will be expanded to two weeks and also include a study skills component.
With the expansion, EOP anticipates being able to serve up to 65 more students, an increase of more than 40 percent. “Our hope is that students will be more comfortable with their transition from high school to college, learn skills and strategies critical for college success, take responsibility for their own futures, understand and use resources available to them in college, and build a community of support,” says Patterson.
Getting a good start
Taking that first step onto campus means many different things to students: the start of an exciting adventure, the chance to make new friends, the first real steps into independence and adulthood. It also can be scary and intimidating and lonely. CSU, Chico has a long history of supporting these students through such programs as Student Support Services, Academic Advising, and EOP. To further help first-time college students have both a successful and supported academic career, CSU, Chico is expanding other programs.
The First-Year Experience (FYE) program, begun in spring 2005, offers courses like University 101: Introduction to University Life as well as internship and mentoring programs. It also includes two public events each semester, Town Hall Meeting and the Chico Great Debate. Both events are designed to encompass the mission of civic education and engagement through an approach to teaching that “focuses on developing student well-being through purpose-driven dialogue and democratic participation.”
“We have created a very robust and successful First-Year Experience program that helps students transition effectively to college,” says Loker. “Students who are in the program tend to persist [to graduation] at a higher rate than students who are not.”
I saw infinite potential in the U-Course’s ability to transform incoming students’ perceptions about what learning looks like in school.
Imaginative citizenship is what the Chico Great Debate is all about. It brings together campus and community members to investigate a “hot topic” that has the potential to divide people—this fall, the focus was on mental health. “What we’ve done with the Chico Great Debate is worked to embed pieces of that event in courses throughout the semester,” says Zach Justus, Chico Great Debate faculty coordinator. “That gives the students a greater sense of purpose about the work that they’re doing during the semester.”
Justus says that participants build toward having a very public and very prominent conversation with local government officials and policy makers. “After they have that conversation, they come back to the classroom and think, this was more than my typical college experience—I did something with this research and work outside the classroom,” he says. “And, our hope, and the research that we’re doing seems to back this up, is that that provides a transformative experience for a lot of the students. It seems to change how they think about themselves at the University and how they think about themselves as people.”
Along with emphasizing academic and civic engagement, FYE is about students’ social well-being. “Fundamentally, I see this as identity work,” says FYE program director Thia Wolf. “We get 18-year-olds who are high school students, whose parents are now gone from their day-to-day lives. Our goal has to be, because of the way universities are situated in this culture, to help them mature into their adult life. One of the important charges is to help students move in the direction of that identity with confidence.”
In December, the CSU Chancellor’s Office held a live webcast highlighting the Chico Great Debate and Town Hall Meeting, showcasing for all CSU campuses the success CSU, Chico has ushering college students into the world of full civic participation. The webcast included a link to CSU, Chico’s free online toolkit to produce a Great Debate or Town Hall Meeting, plus research and other materials to strengthen the first two years of college.
A community for learning
This year, through the Chancellor’s Office grants, FYE has added the U-Course Learning Community, and the University has added a new program called Scholars Circles, which will be up and running in spring 2014. Both incorporate a supportive, nurturing component: mentorship.
The U-Course meets Fridays and Saturdays and hours outside of class that include watching lectures online. Students do project-based work, supported by student mentors who act as writing coaches, subject matter advisors, and project managers. Projects include blogs, mock political campaigns, community projects, and simulations.
“Our goals were to build a course that provided students with a focused, project-based approach to American government and academic writing,” says Ertle.
Freshman Andrew Bautista says one of the biggest reasons he likes the class is its structure. “Instead of your typical class where you sit in on lectures to take notes, this class is set up to force you to work collaboratively and tackle concepts that can sometimes be tedious and boring,” says Bautista. “I like the style of using mentors, upper-division students who oversee our work and help us when we are stuck. English and political science aren’t my favorite subjects, but working collaboratively definitely makes the subjects more interesting and fun.”
On that Saturday morning in October, after the video and short talk by Ertle, the students break into groups of four or five and work on their campaign plans. They disperse throughout the library’s fourth floor, open their laptops, and discuss strategy. Ertle, Farrell, and Wolf check in with the groups, seeing where they need help with their fledgling campaigns. They are creating a diverse array of communications vehicles such as workshops, petitions, and posters on topics including environmental issues, hazing, and childhood obesity.
Wolf asks one of the groups focusing on hazing what they are working on, and they talk about their social media plan and logos for four posters as well as figuring out contacts. A group member asks what department on campus deals with hazing, and Wolf mentions the Student Life and Leadership Office’s hazing workshop. The group excitedly discusses asking the office about combining efforts with them on the workshop.
The student groups have been given time slots to check in with the mentors—five graduate students and three undergrads—during the session. “Probably the most important thing a mentor can do is create a group that gets along with one another,” says project mentor Paulina Battegazzore, a sophomore studying graphic design. “I have really tried to bring these students together as a team and share their academic strengths. It is important because if students are comfortable working with each other, their work will be of higher quality.”
English graduate student and writing mentor Jarret Krone says he appreciates the decentralized, non-lecture style environment where students collaborate in tight-knit breakout groups. “I wanted to be a part of the U-Course because I saw infinite potential in the course’s ability to transform incoming students’ perceptions about what learning looks like in school, and to enforce the sense that their ideas and work are powerful and important,” he says.
Project mentor Efren Sanchez-Delgado, a transfer student from UC Davis pursuing a public administration master’s degree, says he was excited to attend CSU, Chico because of the University’s focus on civic engagement and the opportunity to engage in student learning. “I recall being a first-year student myself and what a challenge that was to adapt to a new environment with different academic performance expectations,” says Sanchez-Delgado. “Looking back at my own personal experience, a program such as U-Course would have assisted my transition into college.”
Sanchez-Delgado says the students he mentors have improved immensely in the way they respond to weekly briefs and group questions in the form of wikis, websites that allow users to add and update content on an ongoing basis.
Bautista says the class structure makes him talk with his group about what he read over the week. “While you might be able to read chapters and chapters, you can’t truly understand the material until you can explain it to someone else, and this course makes you do that,” he says.
A few weeks later, Wolf checks in with the groups to see what help they need with making room reservations, campaign materials, and the like. The students are writing letters to officials, administrators, and parents. “I discovered that one group had already met with members of the City Council, one had scheduled presentations to be made in two residence hall floors, and one had arranged to make a presentation in a local school,” says Wolf.
Bautista, whose group is working on a campaign to teach water and resource conservation, says he feels they are doing important work. “I am studying to be a civil engineer, with a minor in sustainability,” he says. “I feel like each generation is responsible for making this earth a better and safer place to live for the generation to follow, and with our campaign plan to implement resource conservation into school science curriculum, it’s a start to improving our next generation.”
As for the future of the U-Course, a plan submitted to the Provost’s Office proposes offering all eligible students a U-Course by fall 2016. The plan includes various course combinations. Wolf is pleased with the results they have achieved so far.
“I have watched these students move from the position of fairly typical 18-year-olds, who think that one day things will be clearer and maybe they can address a problem in the world, to seeing themselves as community members who can act now to make positive change,” says Wolf. “It has been inspiring.”
A Class in Action
Mention intro to accounting to a college business graduate, and you’re not likely to get a big smile. This used to be the case at CSU, Chico, where ACCT 201: Principles of Financial Accounting must be completed by all prospective business majors with a C or better. In fall 2012, the average GPA for the course was 1.76. Many students had to take the course over—sometimes more than twice.
Then Curt DeBerg, a 23-year business professor, stepped in to flip the student experience. This fall, using “flipped learning,” modeled after the redesigned mega sections of financial accounting at CSU, Fullerton, DeBerg has begun to revamp a class containing more than 100 students. He used a portion of a $537,000 CSU Chancellor’s Office grant provided to five CSU, Chico courses for 2013–2014.
“The flip model means that class work becomes homework, and homework becomes class work,” explains DeBerg.
One of the main changes in fall is that students watch short videos of DeBerg’s lectures at home, before class. Then during class, DeBerg leads the students through their homework. In the spring, four senior accounting majors will serve as mentors and work in a computer lab with students, doing homework during what used to be class time.
DeBerg’s students also benefit from technological advances, including computer monitor screen capture software, displaying whatever is on the professor’s screen; a freely available online textbook; an online system allowing students to access files and communicate with the professor; and electronic Excel spreadsheets that are linked to each other.
“I really did not know much about accounting at all before I entered the classroom,” says sophomore Ryan O’Hair. “I feel that I am lucky that I have a professor who is striving to make a subject that many people struggle with into something more simple and easier to understand.”
Sophomore Katrina Willis says DeBerg’s approach makes accounting much easier to learn and makes the concepts much clearer. “I also really like how he sends us Excel files to study and helps us through our homework; without these, I would not have been able to successfully complete some of the homework assignments,” she says.
Early comparisons of DeBerg’s flipped class to one of his more traditional, smaller Accounting 201 sections indicate that the new approach works. DeBerg reports that of the top 10 papers from the midterm in the two Accounting 201 classes that he teaches, the top nine came from the redesigned class, which has more than 100 students—only one came from his traditional class of 40 students.