For decades, colleges and universities have focused on access as the primary means of fulfilling higher education’s promise to change students’ lives.
The University of South Florida, where I work as the vice president for student success, was no different. But nearly 10 years ago, we began to turn our attention to outcomes. While ensuring more students have access to a college education was an important goal, we knew that access was not enough. We had to provide more students with access to success.
We had worked hard over the years to widen access to our institution, but we were not satisfied with our six-year graduation rate, which hovered around 50 percent. We wanted to help students earn the degree of their choice at a faster rate, and with lower levels of debt. In November 2009, that conversation accelerated with the formation of a university-wide Student Success Task Force. This 100-person task force produced a blueprint that was designed to transform student success at South Florida through focusing on retention and graduation rates.
We adopted or enhanced a number of new programs, including redesigning courses, professionalizing academic advising, setting up living learning communities, strengthening the tutoring center, and promoting student engagement. The changes began to work, and we saw student success rates steadily improve over those first four years. But in 2014, our performance leveled off, and our gains in retention and graduation rates began to plateau.
We realized we had already picked all the “low-hanging fruit.” We had to find ways to reach higher.
It was around this time that the state of Florida moved to a system of performance-based funding. The state established 10 metrics — including six-year graduation and first-year retention rates — that would be used to evaluate an institution’s performance and reward funding. The state had set our new targets. We knew how high we needed to reach.
Forming a cross-functional Persistence Committee, we used Civitas Learning’s predictive analytics platform to identify at-risk students at all levels across the university. We reviewed lists of students, triaged their cases, and coordinated interventions. The power of analytics allowed us, with laserlike focus, to turn our attention to retaining or graduating just 80 more students within the first-time-in-college cohort. Focusing, at first, on these students allowed us to quickly move our retention rate from 88 percent to the state’s 90 percent target, and from a 68 percent graduation rate to the state’s 70 percent target.
We did not stop there, however, and we soon moved beyond the state’s expectations. USF now has a 91 percent first-year retention rate, the highest in the university’s history. Its most recent six-year graduation rate is 73 percent, an increase of 22 percentage points since 2009. We have also eliminated achievement gaps by race and ethnicity, as well as income. In 2018, the Florida Board of Governors designated the University of South Florida as one of only three “preeminent” universities in the state.
Our shift — and the state’s shift — from access to success has helped us retain and graduate thousands more students, providing them with stronger support every step of the way and preparing them for a better life.