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CSU's and UC's: really graduate in 4 years?

April 2011

My son has been accepted to a variety of schools and we are now wondering which schools of the ones he likes will be the most economical. Does anyone out there know if you can really get your classes and graduate at CalPoly and/or UC Santa Cruz in 4 years? He has been accepted to a few privates with aid but they run a bit over the UC tuition for us, so it wouldn't be worthwhile unless the others really don't let a student get the classes needed to graduate. CalPoly would be the cheapest and he likes it, and he could take some city college classes in the summer. I'm just wondering if it's hype or true or not, and if anyone has experience with these two schools in particular.


Our well-respected private college counselor told us to expect it to take five years if our son selected a UC or CSU school. I don't have any other experience, but wanted to share her opinion. We are taking it seriously. Remember that much of this worry is due to current and expected budget cuts, so the experience of kids just who graduated, for instance, may not be as relevant. They attended under a different budgetary situation. Best of luck with it. It sure doesn't make the decision any easier! Anne


YES. Your son can definitely graduate in 4 years from either UC Santa Cruz or Cal Poly SLO. This is a reasonable question given the horrible budget reductions looming at both UC and CSU. But Santa Cruz and Cal Poly are still great deals and the students lucky enough to be admitted will get excellent educations.

UC has a very good record on graduation rate and time-to-degree. At UC overall, the majority of students graduate in 4 years or 4 year plus one quarter and 80% graduate in 5 years or less. For students who take longer than 4 years, the issue is generally not an inability to get classes but rather a desire to take more classes than the minimum needed--for example because a student is completing a double major, is taking additional courses to help prepare for graduate work, or was away from the campus for a term or more studying abroad or whatever. This is not to say that individual students don't have frustrating moments trying to get into a needed course. (I'm sure at least one UC parent will write in with a horror story.) But students who persevere (register for classes early, put themselves on waiting lists, appeal to professors, and try again if closed out the first time) and are flexible (willing to take an 8:00 a.m class!) can generally get what they need.

At CSU, the picture is a little different: courses can be tough to get into, graduation rates are much lower, and many people take longer. But Cal Poly is not a typical CSU--its stats look a lot like a UC campus. There are a number of factors at work here: the drive and preparation levels of students matters a lot and they tend to be high at UC and at specialized CSU campuses like Cal Poly; additionally the culture at private institutions and UC/Cal Poly has an expectation that students will graduate in 4 years (less true at many CSUs). And don't forget the price effect: data shows that the more expensive an institution is, the more motivated students (and their parents!) are to finish on time.

My guess is that unless you are getting great financial aid offers from the private institutions you're looking at, UC or (especially) Cal Poly will be less expensive. And the best way to ensure your son does well in school is to send him to the place he really wants to go. Congratulations on having these options--as budget reductions shrink the size of public education in California, they will be available to fewer and fewer students. Higher Ed expert


Our student is graduating within 4 years at UCSC. It means being on top of your requirements. If necessary taking summer classes or student abroad options for credit will help add up the necessary credits. But when you consider the difference in tuition at a UC over private ''splurging'' on a summer abroad course may be affordable as well as a great experience.

Will this get harder? Anyone's guess. But if you read catalogs carefully you will find it is also fairly common to take 5 years at a private school which may also have many requirements and not offer enough sections to cover the demand. At $35 to $50K per year - that is an even bigger ''ouch'' if money is a consideration. Depending on the private school and how rigid the degree you still need to stay on top of the requirements to graduate.

UCSC students can take classes at any UC in the summer ( unless this changes )- even Berkeley - and there are transfer options within the UC system if Santa Cruz is not his first choice. Though Santa Cruz is a stunning Campus and the Administrators and Staff provide a lot of service. Read over the website carefully for all the options and requirements. Good luck. Banana Slug MOM