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Project Title:The SuperSenior ProjectInstitution Name:California State University, Northridge Innovation Category:Student Success Project Director:Cynthia Z. Rawitch, Vice ProvostContact Information:(818) 677-2957, cynthia.rawitch@csun.eduWebsite:
Project Description:As part of the CSU Graduation Initiative, the SuperSenior Project was designed to decrease the large numbers of seniors who continued to amass baccalaureate units but never seemed to move toward earning a degree and graduation. The project began with collecting data on the numbers of students who had more than 140 units (the Cal State Northridge bachelor’s is typically 120 units/credits), but had failed to file for graduation, a process expected to occur one year prior to graduation. Analysis initially identified both the causes of the problem and the academic majors in which the problem was most pronounced. A series of policy revisions and stricter enforcement of existing policies created solutions, the most effective of which stop a student from registering for classes until the required action is taken. After the first year, the cutoff was lowered from 140 to 130 units in order to identify SuperSeniors earlier and encourage them to focus on timelier graduation and course/program planning.
Objectives:The initial objective of the SuperSenior Project was to increase graduation rates at Cal State Northridge as part of a system-wide Graduation Initiative to improve retention/persistence and graduation rates. It quickly became clear that large numbers of students could be helped toward degree completion by focusing their intentionality, by changing some policies and enforcing others, and by identifying students with potential problems and getting them help earlier in their academic careers. Additionally, during a time and in an environment in which public higher education is rationed due to economic and state fiscal circumstances, helping students to graduate makes room in academia for their younger “brothers and sisters.” Parallel to this project was another set of policies and activities designed to increase retention and persistence, beginning with First Time Freshmen.

Institutional policy changes in this initiative included:

  • Placing a hold on a SuperSenior’s ability to register for the next semester’s classes until completion and filing of a graduation check with the office of Admissions and Records. Initially, this program focused on students who had accumulated 140 or more units without filing the necessary paperwork for graduation. By Spring, 2010, however, the number of such SuperSeniors had been reduced by more than half, allowing us to lower the upper limit to 130 units. Since then, the number of 130-unit students has declined another 29%, with at least one-third of the students who receive reminder e-mails about their graduation status early in any given Spring filing the required paperwork before the end of the term.

  • Limiting the number of courses students can repeat over their academic career at CSUN and the number of times a given course can be repeated. The campus has also limited the ability of students to enroll in a course for purposes of repeating until just days before the start of classes, when almost no seats are available. As a result, the number of courses enrolled in for repeats between Fall 2008 and Fall 2012 decreased by almost three-fifths (from 6,161 to 2,602). Further, during the same period, the percentage of students repeating one or more courses declined from 14% of all enrolled students to 10%, while the percentage repeating more than two courses in a single term declined from 1.2% to 0.4%.

  • Decreasing the number of units available for Financial Aid from 180 to 150. Additionally, imposing strict rules for Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), and reducing and limiting the grounds (and approval) for SAP appeals. The number of appeals filed went from 1,500 in 2008 (almost all of them granted) to 162 at the end of Spring 2011 (when 60 percent were approved and 40 percent denied). Our figures are higher for Spring 2012 because we increased the minimum pass rate from 70% to 80%, then allowed more appeals and made more generous appeal approvals. Students with approved appeals were put on an academic plan and had to meet the plan requirements in Fall in order to receive Spring aid. After a review of Fall enrollment and grades, 332 of the 901 students whose appeals were approved did not meet the plan requirements and were not eligible to receive Spring aid.

  • Limiting the number of majors and minors a student can have (to two each) and defining points at which a major or a minor cannot be changed or added. Although the number of students graduating with more than one major has never been large, it declined by more than three-fifths between 2004/05 and 2011/12 (from 5.6% of all baccalaureate degree recipients to 3.3%).

  • Administratively graduating students who accumulate over 140 earned units if they have completed all degree requirements and a major, whether or not they have declared that major. Since Fall 2009, 40 students have been graduated administratively, with the number falling off sharply after the first two years.

  • All of these policies have appeals processes in place. In every instance, the number of appeals has decreased over time.
Challenges/Problems Encountered:The biggest challenges were: 1) adapting our Common Management System to track students and units in the ways they needed to be tracked for these changes. Since this could not always be accomplished, the problem became; 2) dealing with increased workload issues, especially for Admissions and Records personnel, associate deans and department chairs, and finally; 3) communicating the changes—and the need to make them—widely and effectively. Faculty and students needed to be convinced that the new policies were not punitive. The acceptance of most of the changes was surprisingly swift, most likely as a result of campus-wide collaboration in devising the changes from the very beginning.
Evaluation Approach:

Moving students to timely graduation is an on-going process. Two additional policy changes were adopted by faculty governance bodies, and took effect in Fall 2012.

  • The first policy change requires all students to attempt the Upper Division Writing Proficiency Exam (WPE) no later than the semester in which they complete 75 units/credits. (Passage of the exam is required for graduation, with no exceptions permitted.) Failure to attempt the exam after 75 units stops the student from registering for the next semester’s classes. This requirement allows early identification of CSUN students who need help to pass the exam and directs them to an appropriate intervention. Thanks to this policy change, the percentage of seniors who had not attempted the WPE declined from 37% in Fall 2008 to 3% in Fall 2012.  Despite this reduction, the percentage of students passing the examination, among those attempting it at least once, remained over 90%.

  • The second policy change requires that First Time Freshmen be continuously enrolled in their required mathematics and English courses until completion of the General Education requirement for both. We found that too many students complete their one or two semesters of developmental math and/or writing but then delay enrolling in the General Education requirement for a year or more. Particularly in mathematics, the students who delay completion forget what they have learned and cannot finish the freshman requirement.   

  • The offices of Institutional Research, and Admissions and Records in Academic Affairs work together to track the success of the changes, as noted above. Problems are most often highlighted/uncovered through anecdotal evidence, which can then be addressed.
Potential for Replication:All of the institutional policies discussed above can be adapted at other colleges/universities that seek to increase degree completions, improve graduation rates and enhance measures of academic productivity, with the expectation that similar results as those achieved at CSUN will be realized.
CEO-to-CEO Contact:Dianne F. Harrison , Presidentdianne.harrison@csun.edu
(818) 677-2121
Date Published: Monday, November 21, 2011Date Revised: Monday, July 1, 2013