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July-August 2011

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Fostering Student Success in Hard Times

The challenges facing colleges and universities today may be unprecedented in number and complexity. The recent deep recession continues to take its toll and college costs continue to rise, even while the share of US citizens with a postsecondary credential has not kept pace with that of many other countries. Government and philanthropic organizations exhort the enterprise to confer more degrees to insure a vibrant democracy, keep the country's economy competitive, and prepare the current and next generation of college students for an ever-expanding global workplace.

All this means that higher education must do something at a scale never before realized: deliver a high-quality postsecondary education—and at less cost—to more than three-quarters of an increasingly diverse and often academically underprepared undergraduate population. Even many students who are college-ready encounter campus cultures that feel foreign and unfriendly, making college challenging for them to navigate successfully. To misquote Oliver Hardy's reproach to his sidekick, Stan Laurel, “Here's another nice mess we've gotten ourselves into!”

A nice mess, indeed. Is there a way out?

A few years ago, in Student Success in College (SSiC), we profiled twenty colleges and universities that were unusually effective in fostering student engagement and success, defined as better-than-predicted scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and better-than-predicted graduation rates. These schools are exemplars of what is right with higher education, and much can be learned from them.

DEEP Institutions

Alverno College

California State University, Monterey Bay

The Evergreen State College

Fayetteville State University

George Mason University

Gonzaga University

Longwood University

Macalester College

Miami University (Ohio)

Sewanee: The University of the South

Sweet Briar College

University of Kansas

University of Maine at Farmington

University of Michigan

University of Texas at El Paso

Ursinus College

Wabash College

Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

Winston-Salem State University

Wofford College

We contacted these schools recently to determine whether they have been able to maintain their strong performance. By and large, they have. Through 2009, their graduation rates were comparable to thosein 2002, which was when we identified this group of institutions as worthy of in-depth study. In fact, ten schools increased their graduationrates by at least four percent, and two (George Mason University andThe Evergreen State College) increased theirs by at least ten percent. NSSE scores also were comparable to those in 2002.

None of the twenty schools fell from greatness in the way that the organizations that Jim Collins and his research team studied in How the Mighty Fall (2009). As we reported in the epilogue in the 2010 revised edition of SSiC, some of them sacrificed effective educational practices when budgets were tightened or when grant funds expired; others drifted off course temporarily during leadership transitions and when champions of effective programs left. Nevertheless, we concluded that educational advantagescan be sustained and perhaps enhanced even under difficult circumstances when institutional leaders and others are committed to student success.

The rest of this article illustrates some of what these institutions did to stay true to their commitments to foster student success. Using examples from a half dozen of the schools with different missions and structural features, we discuss some of the obstacles they overcame and the opportunities they created or took advantage of that allowed them to do this.

We found that four key conditions for sustaining good work in hard times characterize all these institutions:

  1. An ethic of positive restlessness permeates the campus.

  2. Data about students and their success inform deliberations and decisions about the curriculum and other institutional priorities.

  3. Academic and student affairs staff collaborate to foster student success.

  4. Campus leaders work assiduously to increase the numbers of faculty and staff who understand the importance of and become committed to student success.

What It Takes to Sustain Effective Practice

An Ethic of Positive Restlessness Permeates the Campus

The twenty institutions we studied possess a deep and abiding commitment to critical reflection. Rarely satisfied with their performance, they engage in ongoing efforts to improve. Most important, they are restless to be better in ways consistent with their mission and educational philosophy; the needs and talents of their faculty, staff, and students; and their goals for student success.

Most institutions would envy the 90+ percent first-to-second year persistence rate that Macalester College enjoyed in the early years of the 21st century. But in 2004, the student affairs staff there decided to enhance the residential experiences of students in order to increase that rate.

Mac is a national liberal arts college in Minnesota, attracting students from nearly every state; 18 percent are international students. At the suggestion of student focus groups, early-fall initiatives were implemented to help students manage the transition to living in Minnesota. Also added were programs relevant to students' age and year in school.

For first-year students, the emphasis in the first six weeks was on managing and adjusting to college. For second-year students, choosing a major and getting ready for study abroad were the organizing themes. Study-abroad experiences were the focus for third-year students. And for fourth-year students, the emphasis was on preparing for their lives after graduation.

The goal of these initiatives was not more but more effective programming—activities that complemented and enriched what students were learning in class. These efforts have borne fruit. By 2008–09, first-to-second year persistence had increased to an enviable 94 percent, with the salutary side effect of a 40 percent drop in student conduct cases, half the number of 10 years ago.

At California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), the introduction of two initiatives—the degree audit and degree pathway—illustrates the campus's desire to improve the student experience. The degree audit is a systematic examination of the frequency and timing of courses required to fulfill general-education and major-field requirements. The degree pathway is an attempt to state in plain language the sequence in which courses should be taken to complete the requirements in a timely fashion.

As one person told us, before these changes “one needed a law degree to understand the degree requirements.” These changes also challenged a nagging Darwinian view held by a few faculty that challenging pathways to and through a major were good, in the words of the provost, “because only the better students could figure out how to navigate them.”

These and related efforts have paid off. From 2006 to 2010, the first-to-second-year persistence rate increased each year, from 65 to 67 to 71 to 76 percent. The president and provost attributed this improvement to data-informed examinations of what CSUMB students needed, which led to a campus-wide approach to implementing practices aimed at student success. As a result, “more people are doing more things squarely focused on student success.”

Since 2005, the University of Maine at Farmington has maintained a laser-like focus on transforming itself in fundamental ways to enhance student learning and success. One example is the adoption of the four-credit course as the modal undergraduate offering, which has reduced a student's full-time class load from five to four. This change was designed so that students could delve more deeply into fewer topics in classes that feature active and collaborative learning and field-based applications.

The institution also made significant changes in the first-year curriculum by instituting two first-year requirements, each worth four credits—a seminar and a writing-intensive course. In the fall semester, the relatively small first-year seminar orients students to UMF and facilitates their intellectual transition to college. The spring first-year writing seminar focuses on developing college-level writing skills.

Data Inform Decisions

Most colleges and universities are awash in data but thirsty for information that points to how to become more effective and efficient (Seymour, 1995). A key condition for sustaining student success is using good-quality, actionable data to determine whether policies, programs, andpractices are having the desired effect.

Many institutions have more data today about student learning and educational effectiveness than they did even five years ago. What sets our high-performing colleges apart is that they have evolved from collecting and assembling data to using evidence to guide changes that promise to improve student engagement, learning, and persistence.

According to Blaich and Wise (2010), this shift reflects an “unnatural act for most institutions.” After working with scores of institutions on assessment and learning initiatives, they concluded that too few have gone from approaching assessment as a data-gathering process to seeing it as a way to strengthen the institution's teaching and learning environments. [Editor's note: see Trudy Banta and Charles Blaich's article in the January/February 2011 issue of Change for a discussion of this problem.]

During a period of considerable undergraduate enrollment growth in the University of North Carolina system, enrollment at Fayetteville State University (FSU) soared. FSU administrators quickly realized that without parallel efforts to improve student success, graduation rates would stagnate or decline, which prompted them to examine institutional data and policies regarding graduation and progression.

Drawing on insights from the literature and analyses of institutional data prompted by FSU's involvement in the Foundations of Excellence® project, faculty and staff re-examined student achievement and persistence data. They determined that they needed higher expectations for student performance combined with strong academic support, intrusive advising, and a greater emphasis on course and degree completion.

This fresh look at institutional data led to a number of changes, including new admissions standards, higher standards for being in “good academic standing,” and more stringent policies to place students on academic probation. When campus officials discovered the high correlation between the number of course withdrawals and the failure to complete the degree, that policy was also changed to limit students to five withdrawals and five course repeats.

These new policies were balanced with enhanced academic support. This included supplemental instruction in courses with high D, F, and W rates; expanded early-alert and interim-grade programs; greater use of academic support services and FSU's innovative “extension grade contracts”; and the requirement that students with a specific entering profile participate in CHEER, FSU's summer bridge program.

At George Mason University, collecting and using data are taken for granted as the means to support the institution's commitment to student success. Three components are critical to Mason's effectiveness in this regard: (1) competent, respected institutional research professionals; (2) senior leaders who appreciate, and are willing to act on, good data; and (3) a team of faculty and staff interested in learning how to use evidence to improve student learning and success.

For instance, in response to sophomore survey results about off-campus employment and evidence about the educational benefits associated with more time spent on campus, university leaders made a concerted effort to increase the number of student employment opportunities at the university. Career services staff created a website to consolidate postings for all on-campus jobs. The university also renegotiated its contract with dining service partner Sodexho to hire more student workers.

In addition, lower scores than they wanted on NSSE's academic challenge benchmark and the need for more rigorous academic experiences for high-ability students prompted campus leaders to expand opportunities for students to participate in Living Learning Communities (LLCs—academically themed residential communities in which students live with peers who share similar interests, interact with faculty mentors outside the classroom, participate in theme-based activities, and co-enroll in a one-credit first-year-experience course). The expansion of and enhancements to these learning-rich LLCs, along with some general efforts by faculty to increase expectations and rigor across all courses, were credited with increases in Mason's NSSE academic-challenge scores and the increased first-to-second-year persistence rates of high-ability students.

Since the early 1990s, Longwood University has pursued its distinctive mission of promoting citizen leadership. Campus leaders have the data to confirm that their efforts to create an integrated student experience have been effective. They trace these improvements to changes in programs and structures to link students' in-class and out-of-class experiences in intentional and mission-driven ways.

The first step was to look critically at student and institutional performance in light of external benchmarks and internal persistence and NSSE data. Faculty and staff discovered, for example, that Longwood students' scores on the NSSE academic-challenge benchmark were lower than those of its peers. As one administrator noted, that was a galvanizing moment, prompting scrutiny of Longwood's approach to student engagement that some sensed overemphasized extracurricular opportunities and underemphasized the role of the formal curriculum and academic achievement in developing citizen leaders.

These observations sparked “focused conversations about who we are, who our students are, and what we need to do to create citizen leaders.” As a result, campus leaders integrated academic and co-curricular student experiences more fully. As we shall see later, these efforts have led to an extensive and intensive array of leadership-development programs.

Institutions have little choice but to turn to the information they have when responding to questions about student and institutional performance from interested external (or, for that matter, internal) parties. As a result, these are the indicators that get attention (for better orworse) and to which resources flow (or not). At our strong-performing schools, faculty and staff are careful to measure things that reflect their mission and values, with a bias fordata that represent aspects of institutional and studentperformance faculty and staff can do something about, not immutableinstitutional or student characteristics.

Academic and Student Affairs Staff Collaborate

Integral to Longwood's efforts to develop citizen leaders is a longstanding “mission-driven partnership” between academic and student affairs, supported by structures that nurture interactions between and among faculty and staff. The thirteen-member CARE team, for example, is made up of faculty members and deans from arts and sciences, business, and education, as well as staff members from student health and wellness, campus security, judicial affairs, residence life, first-year-experience programs, and academic support services.

The CARE team meets on a regular basis to identify, and develop interventions for, individual student behavior that has the potential to be detrimental to the student or the university community. The team also considers patterns of behavior across students, such as sexual assault or alcohol abuse, to determine whether new policies or programs are needed.

Another practice consistent with Longwood's ethos is the academic affairs-student affairs collaboration team. This group was formed to promote more clear and effective integration of in- and out-of-class programs and activities. The team created, for example, an academic-events calendar so that faculty can find out-of-class programs and activities to require or recommend to students that complement their courses' learning goals.

Longwood's leaders also admitted—in a conversation in which the vice president for academic affairs and vice president for student affairs finished one another's sentences—that “it can get messy. We all have control issues. Collaboration requires giving up control,” a relinquishment that they came to recognize as an essential feature of the kind of partnership needed to develop citizen leaders.

Central to some of the student-success initiatives at University of Maine at Farmington are collaborative efforts between academic and student affairs, facilitated in part by the provost and president. An academic-success team, consisting of faculty and student affairs staff, was created to determine the kinds of early interventions that would help new students—especially the two-fifths of the entering class who are the first in their families to attend college—in their transition to college life and college-level academic work.

Faculty who work with student affairs staff on the early interventions enjoy the respect of their colleagues, which helps legitimate the student-success efforts. A salutary, lingering effect is more effective interactions between faculty members and student affairs professionals.

Rich learning opportunities exist outside the classroom. To get more students to take greater advantage of these opportunities both on and off the campus requires collaborative efforts involving faculty and staff. Good will among colleagues typically is not enough to launch, let alone sustain, such efforts. Rather, bridges must be fashioned over organizational chasms between academic and student affairs. This is easier to do when the institutional mission and strategic plan emphasize student learning and success and when senior faculty and staff are focused on these ends—a subject we turn to next.

Campus Leaders Increase the Faculty and Staff Committed to Student Success

At our high-performing colleges and universities, influential campus leaders endorse student success unequivocally and take action to promote it. Without this firm, highly visible commitment, losing sight of student success is all too easy.

Those leaders also make opportunities to explain to others the importance of the student-success agenda on campus, thereby expanding the numbers of faculty and staff who understand why the promotion of students' engagement in effective educational practices is needed to increase student accomplishment. Campus leaders also make sure audiences beyond the campus—including trustees, legislative bodies, foundations, and higher education organizations—are aware of the good things happening on campus.

The president and provost at CSUMB are especially effective in this regard. These leaders came to the campus just a year apart and together planned strategies to improve persistence and graduation rates. They invoke the institutional vision statement frequently to remind faculty and staff of the institution's deep, abiding commitment to student success.

The president meets almost every month with small groups of faculty over breakfast or lunch. She uses these and other occasions, such as faculty senate meetings, to emphasize that student success is everyone's business and to explain why it behooves CSUMB to be a student-centered campus.

The relatively small size of the campus—now about 5,000 students, which is about 2,000 more than when we first visited in 2003—makes such informal exchanges possible. At the same time, we know that many colleges and universities of similar size have leaders who do not create or take advantage of opportunities to remind faculty and staff of the institution's obligation to help students succeed.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that some CSUMB faculty members wondered at first what all the talk about student success really meant. Compromised standards perhaps? Coddling students? The president and provost took steps to convince naysayers and made data available that showed otherwise.

Another illustration of the role of campus leaders in sustaining a campus-wide focus on student success is the provost's blog ( at George Mason University. In 2010, the provost wrote a compelling blog asserting that, although Mason had improved its overall graduation rate and deserved recognition for African-American and Latino graduation rates at about the same levels as those for students as a whole, the institution had to set its sights higher. The provost concluded, “Given Mason's real achievements in this area, but also our service to a wide range of student backgrounds, committing to a goal of further improvement—even aspiring to become something of a model in this vital area—simply makes educational sense.” Administrators and faculty members at Mason appreciate this and other candid, pointed information contained on the provost's blog.

In addition, like their counterparts at CSUMB, Mason's senior administrators use campus committees to promote student success. One relatively new faculty member there said she was surprised by the large numbers of faculty and staff who were participating in student-success initiatives. She pointed to the university's Southern Association for Colleges and Schools (SACS) Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) topic selection and to the planning committees, each with 30+ members, to develop the QEP.

“Fostering a Culture of Student Scholarship” proposes to connect students to the research and creative mission of the institution and to faculty through increasing levels of student engagement in scholarship. That more than 2,000 members of the GMU community gave input on the plan demonstrates that investment in effective educational practice is widespread at Mason.

Make no mistake—it takes enormous effort to stay focused on the effective educational practices that are linked to student success. And when a key figure to the enterprise departs the scene—as was the case at Ursinus after its long-time president, John Strassburger, passed away in 2010—the challenges can seem formidable. But the provost and other senior administrators hope that the effective educational practices at the college are embedded deeply enough in the campus and faculty cultures that they are part of the very fabric of the place—“how Ursinus does things.”

At the same time, the academic deans are expanding the pool of academic leaders among the Ursinus faculty, especially encouraging younger or recently tenured faculty to take key leadership roles. As a result, a growing number of junior but tenured faculty are volunteering for such roles as department chair. Their interest and willingness to do so is cultivated in no small part through faculty development activities coordinated by senior administrators.

For example, the Dean's Colloquium, which is required for new faculty, meets every Monday. About ten other faculty development events are scheduled on Thursday afternoons each semester. Typically, six are scholarly presentations (Baden Lectures) by Ursinus faculty members. A few are “salons,” open discussions during which faculty float ideas for new programs and talk about other aspects of their professorial work. In any given year, more than half the Ursinus faculty participate in one or more of these activities.

Another way Ursinus academic leaders underscore the value of effective educational practices through early and ongoing faculty socialization is by requiring all new faculty members to teach at least once during their probationary period the two-semester interdisciplinary course that introduces students to the intellectual life of the college. The Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) instructors meet on Mondays to exchange ideas about course content and what's working; four out-of-class events—guest speakers and such—tied to the CIE further facilitate a shared purpose. Indeed, most faculty teach in the CIE after getting tenure, even though they are not required to do so.

Thus, while Ursinus faculty are learning what it takes to enact a coherent intellectual experience for students, they are also participating in culture-enhancing activities that help sustain the effective educational practices for which Ursinus has become known.

Concluding Thoughts

As we reflect on what transpired at the twenty DEEP schools overthe past several years, we are convinced that it is possible to sustain and even expand student-success initiatives in hard times. The examples offered here are the products of deeply committed people under challenging circumstances doing extraordinary things. At these institutions, most faculty and staff seem to be pulling in the same direction, and the consequence is student success. While this recipe may seem obvious, getting everyone working in the same direction is a daunting challenge for institutional leaders.

In several instances, additional resources and participation in national initiatives to improve undergraduate education helped sustain the good work these schools were doing. Even modest amounts of funding from external sources—or participating in national initiatives such as the Foundation of Excellence or the Wabash National Study (see—help sustain student-success efforts.

Teagle Foundation support, for example, made it possible for Macalester and Wofford College faculty to devote time to examining assessment results and then to designing and implementing initiatives to improve learning. Wofford faculty focused on coordinating academic and co-curricular activities more effectively to foster integrative learning and higher levels of intellectual growth.

The extensive, targeted analyses that are the cornerstone of the Foundations of Excellence® project allowed Fayetteville State University faculty and staff to discover that their static four-year graduation rates were in no small measure a function of inadequate standards and policies for academic progression.

The Bringing Theory to Practice (BtP) project helped the University of Kansas (KU) and UMF support faculty-development projects that advanced engaged learning efforts. At KU, for example, the BtP project supported the development of a system for tracking student outcomes associated with participation in service-learning courses. A Teagle grant allowed Ursinus to do even more to promote experiences with diversity. CSUMB obtained a multi-year Title V grant to create a Center for Student Success that will become a hard budget line.

The investment of foundations and higher education organizations is not only important to furthering the student success work on campuses, but it also can foster widespread understanding of the value of assessment and of involving faculty in using evidence to improve student learning and success. The existence of small grants, support for pilot initiatives, and structured opportunities for bringing together campuses with similar goals and challenges provides an important incentive and supportive environment for the improvement of undergraduate education.

Other factors sometimes come into play as well. In addition to its success in attracting external funding, Ursinus's enrollment grew from about 1,300 students in 2002 to about 1,800 today; some of resources generated by this increase have been used to maintain the college's signature effective educational practices. As Jane Wellman (2010) and others have found, what matters to student success is not how much money a school has to spend but how much is invested in instruction and academic and student support services.

This paper is both a testament to the institutions that manage to sustain commitment to student success and an urgent plea that the leaders and supporters of other colleges and universities renew their resolve to focus on what matters to student learning, engagement, and success. The stakes are too high to accept anything less.


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2. Collins, J. (2009) How the mighty fall: And why some companies never give in., Collins Publishing., Boulder, CO.

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4. Ehrenberg, R. G. and Webber, D. A. (2010) Student services expenditures matter. Change 42:3, pp. 36-39.

5. Gansemeer-Topf, A. and Schuh, J. H. (2006) Institutional selectivity and institutional expenditures: Examining organizational factors that contribute to retention and graduation. Research in Higher Education 47:6, pp. 613-642.

6. Kezar, A. (2009a) Change in higher education: Not enough, or too much?. Change 41:6, pp. 18-23.

7. Kezar, A. (2009b) Synthesis of scholarship on change in higher education. Paper presented at the Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future conference.

8. Kuh, G. D. (2008) High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter, American Association for Colleges and Universities., Washington, DC.

9. Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H.Whitt, E. J. & Associates (2005/2010) Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter, Jossey-Bass., San Francisco, CA.

10. Seymour, D. (1995) Once upon a campus: Lessons for improving quality and productivity in higher education, American Council on Education and Oryx Press., Phoenix, AZ.

11. Wellman, J. V. (January 2010) Connecting the dots between learning and resources., University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment., Urbana, IL. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 3)

George D. Kuh ( is the director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, and Chancellor's Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.

Jillian Kinzie ( is an associate research scientist and associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

John H. Schuh ( is Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Emeritus at Iowa State University.

Elizabeth J. Whitt ( is a professor of higher education and student affairs and co-director of the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa.

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