Incoming freshmen at a recent orientation at California State University, Sacramento were greeted with a "Class of 2020" welcoming banner and administrators wearing green-and-white buttons reading: "Ask me how to finish in four."
The buttons represent a mission aimed at improving dismal four-year completion rates not just at that campus but throughout the California State University system.
The share of full-time Sacramento State freshmen who left with degrees in four years has averaged around 9 percent since 2004, according to university statistics. Between 41 percent and 46 percent of freshmen finished within six years.
Those statistics put the school near the bottom in the 23-campus, 418,000-student CSU system.
Those rates "suck, and you can quote me on that," Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen said.
The CSU system has seen some improvement in graduation rates in recent years, but it's still low - 19 percent of 2011 freshman got a degree in four years, while 57 percent of those who started in 2009 graduated in six years.
CSU trustees are scheduled to adopt plans in September aimed at dramatically boosting rates by 2025. Preliminary targets are as high as 35 percent of freshmen graduating in four years and 70 percent by six years.
An incentive is a $35 million state grant payable only if the system adopts "coherent" plans to improve the completion numbers, with special emphasis on low-income students. Legislators made the money available under the rationale that the faster current students earn degrees, the more room for new students, easing funding demands.
At Sacramento State and other CSU campuses, new online registration systems are designed to keep students on track with required courses for their major and make it more difficult to drift off too much into electives.
More intensive counseling will be available to address degree delays and problems. Better computerized predictions will alert departments about demand for extra class sections. Officials say more faculty is being hired to ease overcrowded courses and majors. And the university is working with area high schools to create remedial courses students might complete before they start CSU.
To put special emphasis on the issues, Nelsen recently appointed a so-called "graduation czar," Jim Dragna, whose official title is executive director of university initiatives and student success.
Lande Ajose, director of California Competes, a research and policy organization that focuses on workforce and higher education, said it's laudable CSU is trying to address "deplorably low" rates. In the past, the system wrongly accepted low four-year completion rates as a fact of life and didn't do much to change things.
"It is still difficult, but they are rowing in the right direction," Ajose said.
For their part, Sacramento State students are being asked to take an online pledge to register for at least 30 units a year and meet with advisers twice annually. In the past, too many students dallied for years with less than full course loads, CSU officials said.
Amy Baker, from Stockton, signed the pledge because she wants to save money and get into the real world.
"I want to be able to get out and into the workforce and start a job and get on with my life," she said.
CSU leaders acknowledge success won't be easy. They note large numbers of students are from low-income and immigrant families with no college experience. Many students must pass non-credit remedial classes that can take up much of their first year on campus, lengthening their time to a degree.
Plus, they say, the system is still recovering from the recession's budget cuts that reduced the number of courses offered, making it harder to get classes, especially required ones in high demand.
At 28,000-student Sacramento State, Nelsen said the "Finish in Four" campaign represents a change in campus culture from a more leisurely approach. Students will be "challenged in a way I think they are capable of being challenged," he said.
Addressing the freshmen at orientation, Nelsen urged them to take the pledge and warned that each additional year of college and living expenses costs about $23,000, plus lost wages.
"How many you have got an extra $23,000 in your back pocket right now?" He asked.
Beth Lesen, Sacramento State's associate vice president for student engagement and success, noted Cal State has two tuition levels - one for up to six credits a semester and another for 6.1 and above.
So taking 12 rather than 15 credits, she told a group of parents at the orientation, "is like passing up a bargain in the store."
"You don't turn down free things as a matter of course in your life," she said.