Ian E. McInness
On San Jose State University’s lush inner-city campus, students in their graduation gowns pose with their families in front of ivy-covered buildings.
They’re the lucky ones.
Just 10 percent of students graduate from this public university in four years. After six years, it’s only a bit more than half.
Think about that — of 100 students who enrolled four years ago, only 10 will walk across the stage this year.
That sounds low, but you can find these kind of numbers at lots of universities in the U.S.
What’s not typical is how San Jose State is tackling the problem.
Officials there did something radical: they phoned students who had dropped out and asked them why.
Up on the north side of campus, you’ll find Marcos Pizarro on the second floor of Clark Hall. At 6 feet 2, he’s nearly as tall as his tiny office is wide.
A professor of Mexican-American studies, Pizarro has been at San Jose State for 17 years.
All that time, he says, he has heard the same explanation about why the graduation rate is so low. It goes like this: “Well, they’re not as well-prepared, and they have a lot of other commitments.”
It’s true, he adds, many students here do come from underperforming schools. Pizarro knows because he has taught in those schools.
And a lot of them work full-time jobs — both to pay for college and to contribute to their families.
Yet, Pizarro adds, something else is true too: “They’re amazing. They’re really phenomenal.” In class, he says, these students are some of the most engaged, motivated and insightful people he has worked with.
So why aren’t they graduating?
When Pizarro started looking at the data, he found that San Jose State’s graduation rate is bad for all students. But for Latinos it’s really bad: Just 4.5 percent graduate in four years. African-Americans do only slightly better.
Pizarro couldn’t let this go. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he needed to talk to those students. Not the graduates. But the ones who left.
“We don’t do exit interviews,” Pizarro said. “It’s not just us. Nobody does exit interviews with students.”
Pizarro and a few colleagues obtained a grant, and they started calling up hundreds of San Jose State dropouts, with a focus on Latino and African-American students.
What emerged from these interviews were real institutional barriers.
And there was one final problem: The dropouts never felt part of the campus community.
The exit interviews, of sorts, revealed issues with class scheduling, advising and fitting in on campus, which has prompted initiatives at San Jose State to add classes, increase the number of advisors and bring students together.
When Lewis and Clark Community College leaders started tracking data to figure out how best to support students, for example, they found developmental education students had retention rates 10 percent higher than those who did not take remedial classes.
Over the past decade, there have been about a dozen studies, several of which sought to lay shrinking student success rates and rising student attrition rates at the feet of the growing numbers of non-tenured faculty hired to teach undergraduates. At San Jose State, the 26,664 undergraduate students at San Jose State University are taught by a total of 1,777 instructional staff. Adjusting these numbers to account for those with part-time status results in “full time equivalent” (FTE) counts. Using these FTE counts for students and staff results in a “student to instructor” ratio of 27 to 1. This places San Jose State University among the worst in terms of instructional attention. A slim percentage of the San Jose State instructors ( 39 percent ) are full-time.
While the exit interviews conducted at San Jose State are by no means definitive or scientific in nature, the results of the interviews are nonetheless significant. The students interviewed clearly identified institutional issues as the major roadblocks to their academic success.
In April, AdjunctNation Executive Editor P.D. Lesko wrote, “The persistence of the AAUP, AFT and NEA and their allies in perpetuating the myth that student retention and graduation rates have deteriorated because the number of adjunct faculty employed within higher education has increased, is nothing short of political maneuvering. The AAUP’s annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession is widely written about in the mainstream media and the mainstream media often repeat verbatim misinformation about the alleged destabilization of higher education by the two-tier system under which adjunct faculty are employed.”