This entry is part 3 of 28 in the series Spring - 2017



by Tony Phifer

Laura Jensen, a Colorado native, was nearing graduation from high school when her father’s business failed in the economic morass of the 1980s, taking his livelihood and the family’s college fund down with it.

“Financially, I didn’t know how to make a college degree possible for myself, but I knew without a degree my options down the road would be limited,” she says.

Jensen applied for and received Pell Grants as an undergraduate. She worked several jobs, including one as the evening receptionist at a mortuary, and shared a basement apartment with her sister – each paying $93 monthly in rent – to be close to campus. She enrolled in summer school at the local community college to save money, and limited her student loan debt by graduating early with a B.A. in psychology.

As soon as she paid off her undergraduate loans, Jensen returned to earn her M.A. in psychology (again with the help of student loans); nearly a decade later she went on to earn her Ph.D. in educational research – both accomplishments she never imagined were possible when she was in her teens.

That journey helped her discover her passion for helping individuals to reach their fullest potential. Early in her career, she realized that data and research could inform policy decisions that could provide individuals from all walks of life authentic access to a college degree.

Measurements of Student Engagement


As CSU’s associate provost for planning and effectiveness, Jensen has overseen the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness since 2010. She came to CSU after working at Front Range Community College but was hesitant to leave FRCC.

“I didn’t really see myself working at a four-year institution; the access mission of the community college reflected my personal values,” she says.

However, in 2008, she was approached by CSU to be part of its Student Success Initiative to improve graduation and student retention rates.

“I had no interest in overseeing an office that simply fulfilled mandated reporting requirements,” Jensen says. “But I knew to achieve the goals of the Student Success Initiative that CSU would need to be highly data-informed. That was exciting to me. It allowed me to bring my passion and experience to campus at a pivotal time.”

Laura Jensen


That’s when Jensen and her office, fully supported by Patrick Burns, CSU’s dean of libraries and vice president for information technology, took time to automate most standard reporting processes and create data structures that would allow the office to better serve campus. After nearly a year of working on the long, arduous project, the re-imagined and more efficient IRP&E office began to play a critical role in informing the SSI.

Student Engagement infographic

Suddenly, nearly every facet of the student experience – both inside and outside the classroom – could be analyzed, with results presented in a way that campus could easily understand. Administrators and faculty could use the figures to spot trends and relationships between different activities and identify areas in need of attention to help students get the most education during their time at CSU.

“Laura and her team were able to look at particular freshman courses to see who was failing and figure out how many of those students would then drop out,” says Blanche Hughes, CSU’s vice president for student affairs. “Once we had that data, we could start looking at the reasons why students were failing a particular course and take action.”

The SSI has been successful because of collaborative leadership and the vision and sustained focus of many individuals and departments. Paul Thayer, special assistant to the provost and associate vice president emeritus for student success; Mary Ontiveros, vice president for diversity; Lamborn, Hughes, and many others have been the driving forces behind SSI. But the information provided by Jensen’s office helped inform conversations and decisions at every level of that success.

Alan Lamborn

“Some of the numbers were alarming – we had classes where two-thirds of the students were failing or withdrawing,” Hughes recalls. “Faculty who are into numbers, they had to see the data. Once we did that, we were able to convince them that teaching methods matter.”

For instance, research revealed that more than half of first-year students who earned a D, F, or W in introductory chemistry, life sciences, and physics classes failed to graduate, while 81 percent who earned a C, B, or A in one of those courses successfully earned a degree. Research also revealed that students who hadn’t passed introductory composition and mathematics in the first year were much more likely to drop out.

“After that, the goal was to get every freshman into those classes (or equivalent courses),” Hughes says. “The graduation rate is 40 percent higher for students who completed those courses their freshman year.”

Such data also supported the creation of The Institute of Learning and Teaching, or TILT, the unique CSU entity that provides both students and teachers opportunities to improve their learning processes. Additional research helped inform changes in financial aid policies and assess the impact of specific curricular and co-curricular interventions.

Still, there were many more avenues to explore.

Student Engagement Infographic


Thanks to years of work and investments from a variety of people and University resources, CSU has instituted a number of programs – learning communities, redesigning academic guidance to incorporate academic success coordinators, TILT, etc. – that have helped CSU significantly improve student learning and engagement. The byproduct of these efforts has been an increase in retention and graduation rates.

“Students learn differently, and some of our initiatives have been more successful than others,” Jensen says. “We need to know that. We don’t want to waste time, effort, and resources – they’re just too valuable – on programs that aren’t working well. We also want to know which initiatives are the most impactful so we can funnel additional resources to them if possible.”

Jensen said SSI will continue to explore new ways to support student success, and that IRP&E will be there to contribute to those conversations. That formula has CSU on track to surpass the 70 percent graduation goal by 2017 outlined by President Tony Frank.

Still, Frank has a history of pushing the envelope at CSU, and he stunned more than a few people in the audience at his 2011 annual Fall Address when he stated a new goal: an 80 percent graduation rate by CSU’s 150th birthday in 2020.

Jensen, however, wasn’t stunned; she had already looked at the numbers. Her conclusion?

“We can do this,” she says. “We’ve got a great team in place, and we are determined to make this happen.

“Honestly, I would not be overstating it to say we have a national model for student success at CSU. We are not just talking the talk, we are walking the walk and putting students first. That’s what matters. It’s going be an exciting next few years.”