Fresno State prods 'super seniors' to finish

Fresno State student Wesley Sheets figures he's banked more than 200 units in a college career spanning three campuses and nearly a decade.

And he's not done yet.

Most bachelor's degrees require 120 to 130 units. But Sheets, 29, said he isn't ready to graduate because he changed majors, couldn't transfer some units between campuses and struggled academically after a death in his family.

Now, unit-rich students like him are getting more attention on California State University campuses. Authorities are nudging students -- often called "super seniors" -- to graduate and make room in the cash-strapped system.

The 23-campus CSU has clamped down on admissions as it works to reduce enrollment by 40,000 students over two years. Fresno State is shrinking fall 2010 enrollment to about 19,500 -- roughly the same number of students as it enrolled in fall 2000.

In comparison, the university's highest enrollment was more than 22,600 students in fall 2008.

Around the CSU, one way to make more room is to encourage super seniors to finish. At Fresno State, more than 100 students who are eligible -- or nearly eligible -- to graduate recently received letters instructing them to meet with an adviser to develop a graduation plan.

Those students can't register for fall 2010 classes until officials evaluate their plan.

Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs, said graduation is the ultimate goal.

"The message is that we are about student success, and that really translates into getting your degree," he said.

Super seniors have been warned that Fresno State can graduate students who have finished degree requirements -- whether or not they ask to graduate.

Oliaro said authorities haven't done that. But, he said, "it certainly is an option, and one that could be considered" in later semesters.

Other CSU campuses have taken that step. At CSU Northridge, a handful of students were told they've graduated and can't enroll in any more undergraduate classes.

Cynthia Rawitch, Northridge's associate vice president for undergraduate studies, said the campus also reduced the number of units eligible for financial aid and tightened rules for repeating a class.

"Everything we're doing is an attempt to say to students: Pay attention the first time," she said.

CSU Northridge is working with about 500 super seniors. One student -- who started college in the 1980s and now has grown children -- amassed more than 250 units and is close to several degrees, Rawitch said.

Even so, he wanted to change majors -- again. He was told to finish one of those already in progress, she said.

"We have taken a hard line with these high-unit seniors," Rawitch said.

At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, officials met with super seniors and even scheduled them into the classes needed to finish degrees.

Kimi Ikeda, assistant vice provost for systems and resource management, didn't have an estimate on the numbers.

Cal Poly also is considering creating policies to prevent students from prolonging their stay in academia by repeatedly adding courses and minor fields of study, she said.

Experts say there are many reasons students don't graduate even when they can. Some simply like school. Some don't want to test today's tough job market. Some say they can't get a required class.

At Cal Poly, for example, Ikeda said some students keep schedules free between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. -- prime beach hours.

Yet she and others say there are legitimate reasons for lengthy college careers. Double majors or minors take more time. Switching a major adds a new set of requirements. Units taken at other colleges don't always transfer.

Sheets, originally from Bakersfield, said he dealt with many of those and other issues. Now, with the help of several faculty advisers, he plans to graduate with a communications degree in spring 2011.

"I'm anxious to finish," Sheets said.

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