This entry is part 1 of 28 in the series Spring - 2017



by Kate Hawthorne Jeracki

“We can do better.”

That simple statement of belief set in motion a decade-long initiative that has transformed Colorado State University and the way it serves its undergraduates, now and in the future.

“In 2005, in terms of persistence to graduation, we were just about average, not struggling but not excelling either,” recalls Alan Lamborn, then vice provost for undergraduate affairs and now associate provost for educational attainment for CSU. At the time, CSU’s six-year graduation rate was just above 60 percent – up from about 50 percent in 1990, but it had remained more or less flat since 1995. “The administration had been looking at research on programs that were above average, and didn’t see any reason we couldn’t implement some of those best practices here.”

And so, with the full support of then-Provost Tony Frank, the Student Success Initiative was born.

If SSI’s founding belief statement was simple, its goals were audacious. By the time the class of 2017 received their degrees, CSU would:

• Achieve a 70 percent or greater six-year graduation rate

• Eliminate the gap between six-year graduation rates of minority and non-minority students, adjusted for entering background characteristics

The first step to increasing the graduation rate 10 percentage points was to find out what had been holding it at 60 percent for the previous decade.

A core team coordinated by Paul Thayer, then assistant vice president for student affairs and now special assistant to the provost and associate vice president emeritus for student success, reviewed the existing research and discovered that the best outcomes were achieved when learning in the classroom continued outside the classroom. They began gathering information on what it would take to align curricular and co-curricular activities on campus to maximize student engagement and deepen learning outcomes.

“We started by looking at every part of the student experience at CSU, from communications from admissions to academic advising – even how they paid their tuition and interacted with housing,” Thayer says. “The one question we asked everyone was, ‘Why do we do it that way?’ If the best answer was, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ that wasn’t really an answer, and we knew we had work to do.”


Student success can be measured by recruitment and retention – why students choose a school and why they continue on to graduation. As the team worked on designing the Student Success Initiative, it kept a guiding principle in mind: As a land-grant institution, CSU has a mission to provide access to education to all students, regardless of background, and that education must be meaningful to allow students to be successful after graduation.

“Any student success initiative had to provide both access and success,” Thayer adds.

In 2006, the team presented its report outlining how the University could reach the goals to Frank. The overall effort would be massive, but could be achieved in manageable steps.

“We recommended to the Board of Governors that the Student Success Initiative be included in the budget,” says Frank, now CSU president and chancellor of the CSU System. “They accepted the recommendation, and we gave SSI the green light to proceed, within available budgetary resources each year.”


Those resources were almost immediately stressed by the Great Recession in 2008, the year Frank became CSU president and College of Natural Sciences Dean Rick Miranda stepped into the interim role of provost. Miranda continued the administration’s total support for SSI when he became provost and executive vice president in 2010.

By 2012, Colorado State began hitting historically high rates of graduation, not only at the six-year mark, but also for four- and five-year degree completion. In fact, between 2007 and 2012, the four-year graduation rate steadily increased from 38 percent to 45 percent.

Rising graduation rates would not be possible without more freshmen returning for their sophomore year – and more sophomores returning to complete their chosen majors. In 2006, first-year retention was on a downward trend; it had dropped to 82.5 percent, while the percentage of first-year students on academic probation at the end of the fall semester was almost 20 percent.

By including the University’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness in the SSI effort, the team identified specific indicators of academic success for first-year students: The graduation rate difference between students who complete foundational math, composition, and 30 credits in the first year compared to those who do not is about 46 percentage points.

Armed with this and other data, SSI transformed the academic advising process to ensure first-year students are directed to and supported in completing these core courses. The Center for Advising and Student Achievement, now the Collaborative for Student Achievement, was created to focus specialized staff time and attention on the needs of first-year, undeclared, transfer, first-generation, and other traditionally underserved students. Today, one in four CSU students is the first in their family to go to college; one in five receives a Pell Grant; and one in four is a student of color.


In 2007, CASA began expanding the Key Communities, diverse first- and second-year learning communities with structured integration of curricular and co-curricular elements. Over the previous decade, participation in Key had increased from 300 to 600 first-year students and from 30 to 100 second-years, according to Gaye DiGregorio, executive director of the Collaborative.

“Key is just one of the many learning communities on campus; so, in 2008, we began University Learning Community Coordination to provide support and infrastructure for recruitment, assessment, and implementation of best practices at CSU,” DiGregorio says. “We’ve also expanded orientation to include programs to assist in the transition from the first and second years and more programs and services for incoming transfer students.”

The success of student success at CSU has been the result of rearranging the University – every office, every department, every faculty and staff member – to place the student at the center of every initiative undertaken.

And the result of the massive effort? Colorado State achieved those two original audacious goals this year – and is already working on 2020 and beyond.



Top-level administrators begin designing a plan to achieve a 70 percent graduation rate by 2017.


Board of Governors approves inclusion of the Student Success Initiative in the annual budget.


TILT, The Institute for Learning and Teaching, and CASA, the Center for Advising and Student Achievement, are created to transform teaching methods and expand support for undergraduate learning.


CASA focuses on advising undeclared students, enhancing early-warning systems, and returning students on academic probation to good standing through intervention programs. Tony Frank becomes president of CSU.


Great Recession deepens; 73 percent of students receive financial aid.


Rick Miranda appointed provost and executive vice president. Five-year graduation rate for transfer students is above 71 percent.


Graduation rates for all students at four, five, and six years hit all-time highs and are on track to achieve SSI goals. President Frank sets a new stretch goal of 80 percent graduation rate by 2020 and elimination of all gaps between students of various backgrounds.


The Campaign for Colorado State raises more than a half-billion dollars for academic and scholarship programs. In national survey, CSU students report positive changes in their level of satisfaction with faculty interactions and the advising they receive, compared to 2007.


Freshmen on academic probation down to 12 percent from 20 percent in 2006.


CSU celebrates the 30th anniversary of its First Generation Award, a first-of-its-kind program to support the academic success of students whose parents did not earn bachelor’s degrees.


First-year students returning to CSU remains above 86 percent, up from 82.5 percent in 2006. This increase leads to the CSU SSI model receiving national attention among peer institutions, studied by other universities as the gold standard.


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation renews the University’s iPASS grant to continue innovation in student advising, and the Aspen Institute features CSU’s successful collaboration with Front Range Community College to support transfer students in a national report.


CASA becomes the Collaborative for Student Achievement. SSI achieves its original goals with the graduating class of May 2017. The Association of Land-Grant Universities includes CSU’s SSI among best practices for higher education leaders seeking to transform their own campuses.

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