If you ask President Robert Nelsen about the secret to success, his answer may surprise you. After all, he was raised on a hardscrabble ranch and knows that life is made up of gritty details, not the gloss on top. President Nelsen will tell you that success is the culmination of corralling obstacles, failure and disappointment and roping them into a result that serves you well. That is exactly how he is handling the turnaround of Sacramento State.

President Nelsen has been at the helm of the university for just over a year and a half and already he is renovating buildings, digitizing student course management and advancing technology in the classroom. He has expanded faculty, student advisors and course availability to improve the school’s 4-year graduation rate and is filling classrooms with equipment from the field to improve hands-on education. In short, President Nelsen is doing everything in his power to develop graduates with finely honed skills that business and industry seek. He knows that when students have the skills to attract industry, industry is attracted to Sacramento.

Lifting “Sac State” out of its doldrums.

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen with his wife, Jody

“Sac State”, as Sacramento State is fondly called, is in the graduation doldrums. It has what President Nelsen calls a “very disappointing” four-year graduation rate of 9%. The goal is to increase it to between 30 and 40%. “Every year a student is here the cost of books, tuition, transportation and housing is approximately $23,000. On the other hand, if they can graduate they can hopefully earn between $70,000 and $80,000 a year.”

He wants to improve other student success indicators as well. Sac State is retaining 80% of its students but the goal is 90%.

“Any time we lose a student or one drops out, they lose a chance to be successful,” says President Nelsen. “For every low-income student who graduates, their family is lifted out of poverty. That’s why we must provide our students with the classes, advice and support they need.”

President Nelsen is launching a full frontal attack on inadequate university systems, facilities and classroom teaching methodologies to make them relevant, effective and magnetic to employers. He wants students to graduate in four years whenever possible, instead of six or eight, and his goal is to keep every Sac State graduate in the Sacramento market. “Right now 60% of Sac State students are hired by the Sacramento market. I want to keep them all!”

“To accomplish that we have to adapt to the hiring environment and employers’ expressed needs,” said President Nelsen. “We can attract businesses to Sacramento if we make sure that our curriculum is relevant and our students are getting the hands-on learning and applied knowledge that businesses seek. That will result in employment.”

He’s already working on it. AnPak, a company that conducts cancer detection using blood and blood tests, visited Sac State so that President Nelsen could demonstrate the school’s hands-on training approach to education. President Nelsen told Ampak’s hematologist that the school would make equipment from the field available to students in the classroom to focus training and improve hireability.

The same is true for power engineering – one of only three such programs in the country. Sac State has deliberately put equipment like high speed transformers and breakers in classrooms for hands-on education. “That’s what makes us unique,” said President Nelsen. “Employers know that our power engineers have the practical experience and applied knowledge that will make them great employees.”

Success – one gritty detail at a time.

Remember those gritty details? Here are some of them that can easily get in the way of student success and how President Nelsen is addressing them:

Course availability: If students can’t get the classes they need each year they can’t graduate on time. That increases economic stress and can cause students to either drop out or languish in a 6 to 8 year graduation process. President Nelsen has instituted the following steps:

  • Finish in 4 Pledge: Students sign a pledge that they will take 15 credits per semester in order to graduate in 4 years.
  • Added 12,000 classroom seats and 384 additional sections
  • Instituted Smart Planner- a software program that provides a dashboard to each student, allowing them to see their progress toward a 4 year graduation
  • Platinum analytics software- a program that tells deans how many students need to take certain courses in order to guarantee enough classes are available to support a 4 year graduation rate

As a result 65% of freshmen students are now taking 15 credits and are on course to graduate in 4 years. Prior to these changes only 11% of students took a full course load.

Smart classrooms: President Nelsen is leading the charge to renovate 10 to 20 classrooms each summer. He knows that technology will make Sac State education relevant. “We need to move our labs from the beakers of yesterday to the virtual technology of today,” he said. “We need smart classrooms, advanced technology, and the right materials to educate our students.”

Better prepared high school students: The more well prepared that students are for college, the greater the chance that they succeed. That is why President Nelsen is actively working with high schools to make sure their curriculum is aligned with that of Sac State. If students are prepared then the number of remedial courses offered at a college entrance level can be reduced.

It all comes back to the saddle

It would be a disservice to wrap up this story without talking about the saddle in President Nelsen’s office. It lies at the core of his drive and motivation to improve the lives of students. The school’s website relates the story saying: President Nelsen grew up poor on the Montana cattle ranch that his father worked three jobs to buy for the family. They had horses but could afford only one saddle, so young Robert worked cattle bareback – until a kind family friend showed up with the gift of Calamity Jane’s saddle. That saddle is now the centerpiece of Nelsen’s office at Sacramento State – and a symbol of his commitment to students.

“I keep it here for three reasons,” Nelsen says. “It breaks the ice when someone comes into the president’s office, and I don’t want to be (perceived as) as a stodgy president. More importantly, it reminds me of the students and the struggles they have. It’s a reminder that we succeed because of the kindness of others, and we have the responsibility to give back.”

Responsibility is an understatement. When it comes to President Nelsen you would have to add tenacity, determination, persistence and the inimitable resolve to do right by his students, and that’s just a start. President Nelsen is going to make Sacramento State the premier source of highly skilled graduates that will attract business and industry to the Sacramento area. Saddle up everyone, it’s going to be fun to watch.