This entry is part 2 of 28 in the series Spring - 2017



by Anne Manning

If you ask Colorado State University students, “What is the Student Success Initiative?” you may get some blank looks.

But explain what it is – a collaborative, campus-wide effort aimed at helping undergraduate students find their path, thrive in and out of the classroom, and graduate on a track to success – and you’ll get some nods.

“I didn’t know it was called that, but you can feel it,” says Sarah Hartzell, a senior human development and family studies major. “It feels like everyone here at CSU is genuinely interested in your success – not just lining up what you have to do, but catering to your experiences and your personal interests.”

Creating a learning environment like the one Hartzell describes requires the time and dedication of countless people – advisers, administrators, mentors, faculty members, registrars, financial aid officers – all committed to seeing CSU students succeed.

Simultaneously, an ever-evolving digital world has profound implications for how students interact with the University and how it interacts with them. For example, not so many years ago, course enrollment was done – gasp – in person, on paper. Now, of course, students register for courses online, as well as pay their tuition, find study groups, manage their calendars, and interact with their professors. Fast, reliable information is expected, even demanded. And, of course, we’re all addicted to our smartphones.

How can universities like CSU engage with students on a personal level, while embracing technology and everything it can provide?

It takes a village, and it’s called the “high-tech, high-touch approach” – using technology and data to support and inform student achievement, while maintaining human relationships as the central component of student success. It’s a philosophy that CSU has embraced, as the Student Success Initiative officially enters its second decade.

“Technology will never replace a human’s ability to empathize, relate, and support,” says Amy Dinise-Halter, manager of student success projects at CSU. “Yet, a human cannot, for example, possibly gather all the information a student could self-report, if given the opportunity.”

Quote by Blanche Hughes regarding student success


Hartzell, an Arizona native, came to CSU with the lifelong ambition of becoming a veterinarian. Jumping gamely into zoology, she hit a wall during a dissection lab, when she found she couldn’t stomach the cadavers.

“I realized that maybe becoming a vet wasn’t for me,” she said.

With the help of her undeclared adviser, Elliot Cooper, Hartzell explored other options, including, at one point, becoming a psychology major. She’ll graduate in May with a degree in HDFS, which marries her passion for science, with a newly discovered passion for working with people, particularly adolescent youth (although she still loves animals).

To find her way, Hartzell went through the Key Explore program – a community for undeclared students – and eventually became a mentor in that program.

If one undergraduate’s story says anything, it’s that her personal growth as a student is best attributable to interventions by humans, not technology. Building on her own interests, motivation, and hard work, Hartzell benefited from advisers – Cooper and J.R. McGrath, in the human development department — who cared about her success.


Though there’s no substitute for human interaction, there’s no question that technology drives our every day. “This generation, born after 1998, has never not known a digital world,” Dinise-Halter says. “They have never not known the Internet to exist, and they’ve always had a cell phone that texts. They have always had information at their fingertips.”

The University wants to leverage technology to meet students’ needs – a generation that expects clear, fast, and personalized information. One example: Research completed in 2013 by Experian Marketing Services found that 18- to 24-year-olds sent and received an average of 128 text messages per day – clearly the generational communication channel of choice.

This year, CSU implemented software that allows advisers to more easily text message their students.

“We have set some guidelines around texting students,” Dinise-Halter explains. “They’re limited to 140 characters, and they have to be information-oriented or action-oriented: things like, ‘I saw that you’re on probation – can we meet? Or, ‘I see that you’re enrolled in Chem 111 – how did your exam go? Can you come and see me?’”

RamWeb, the student portal for personal information, course enrollment, grades, and tuition, has also recently been redesigned to be more user-friendly. Plans are in place to roll out an even newer version, which will include more targeted and personalized alerts and messaging for students.

The University has also received a grant from the Gates Foundation, called iPASS, which is supporting a new set of data and information tools for students and advisers. Keeping up with changing technological trends and needs is a continuous challenge, Dinise-Halter says.

And on the classroom side, The Institute for Learning and Teaching – a direct result of early Student Success Initiative planning – offers faculty development and course redesign support. Recently, TILT received a grant from the Association of Public and Land- Grant Universities to pilot adaptive learning courseware, which provides individualized feedback for students as they learn.


Leaders of the Student Success Initiative have embraced a data-informed mindset, investing money and time into proven predictors of student achievement. Research indicates that quality, personal advising for students leads to better outcomes, so several years ago, CSU started a program called Academic Success Coordinators, or ASCs.

According to Blanche Hughes, vice president for student affairs, the ASC program was roughly modeled after professional advisers in the psychology department. “We decided to pilot that for all the departments on campus,” Hughes says. “The data shows us that students are more successful working with someone whose job is to advise students in the first two years – whether they have a major or not.”

ASCs are there, fundamentally, to help students define a clear path to academic achievement, while also encouraging them to explore what are called high-impact practices outside the classroom – internships, study abroad, service-learning, and more.

Dinise-Halter oversees a network of about 70 ASCs spread across campus. Most are embedded in departments, while some are housed in Undeclared Advising at the Collaborative for Student Achievement. ASCs are charged with providing a “holistic experience” for students that can lead them to success.

In an ongoing partnership with CSU’s Institutional Research division, ASCs have direct access to data that informs how they work with students. For example: research shows that students who take composition and math requirements within their first 30 credit hours are more likely to be successful and graduate. ASCs use that data to help students shape their course work.

When students are placed on academic probation or exhibit a precipitous grade change – a 1.3 point change in GPA – ASCs are often their first contact to help them figure out next steps.

“The idea is that this isn’t just a checklist; there are strategic ways to navigate the University, and ASCs are there to help,” Dinise-Halter says.


Navigating the University can be especially challenging for those freshmen who come in without having selected a major. In fact, about a third of freshmen enroll undeclared, which is consistent with national averages. It’s another juncture at which CSU engages in high-touch practices.

“It’s not just the ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,’” explains Cooper, one of 12 academic success coordinators for undeclared students, and whose home base is the Collaborative for Student Achievement. “It’s also the ‘I didn’t meet entrance requirements for one of the competitive majors around campus’” – such as business, engineering, computer science, journalism, and biomedical sciences.

Cooper leads Key Explore, one of seven Key Communities – living, learning residential communities at CSU. Key Explore consists of a three-credit fall seminar that emphasizes strength finding, and helps students identify their values, interests, skills, and beliefs. A one-credit follow-up in the spring focuses on professional development.

Undeclared first-year students meet with their undeclared advisers during Ram Orientation. Before that initial meeting, the advisers can access information on where the students are from, their grades in high school, whether they’re first-generation, and whether they’ve received a scholarship.

For Cooper, leading Key Explore and meeting with students one-on-one to help them find a home department is the fun part of his job – especially since he himself was once an undeclared student at CSU (he eventually majored in theater, joined the Peace Corps, worked for a nonprofit, and got an M.B.A. from CSU).

“I love watching those ‘a-ha’ moments of seeing a student realize they can do XYZ major and still survive,” he says.


Beyond the regular work of academic advising and academic success coordinators, another example of a “high-touch” practice that employs “high-tech” to achieve its objectives is U-Turn, a resource expo organized every year since 2010. The program is overseen by Darrie Burrage, associate director of learning programs at TILT.

Early in the semester, first-years participate in Taking Stock, an early-intervention survey that’s administered in close partnership with residence hall advisers. Results are tabulated into low-, medium,- and high-risk students, and residence hall advisors meet with students to go over results.

In addition, faculty who teach larger introductory courses participate in Early Performance Feedback, in which students receive an “S” (satisfactory) or “U” (unsatisfactory) assessment early in the semester. Both Taking Stock and Early Performance Feedback help identify students who could benefit from early academic intervention.

These students are recommended to attend U-Turn, a one-stop shop for all the student resources on campus. That’s everything from TILT tutoring to CSU Health Network, the calculus center to the writing center, internships to career services.

During U-Turn, students meet individually with a personal “navigator” who offers recommendations and guidance on the dizzying array of options. Drawing hundreds of students – not just those at risk of academic probation – and requiring careful collaboration with student affairs, residence halls, and others, U-Turn offers individualized attention to students who want or need it the most.

“Everybody has something they are trying to achieve,” Burrage says. “Whether that’s passing their next exam, or getting to a certain GPA, or getting a nationally competitive scholarship, coming to U-Turn can help them take the next step toward that goal.”

This spring, U-Turn added 20-minute recurring workshops, Burrage adds. The topics were chosen by popular demand, and covered time management, high-impact learning, and motivation and goal-setting.

It’s easy to “feel like a number” at a big university, Burrage says. “U-Turn is an event that flips that on its head – for people to say, ‘I do feel cared about here.’”


The Student Success Initiative is a 10-year-old effort that crosses five University divisions and is composed of countless moving parts: from the professors who provide Early Performance Feedback to the academic success coordinators who go the extra mile to help students.

Even more granular to the efforts are everyday aspects of the undergraduate experience here at CSU that students may not even think about. But they make a difference, in subtle but profound ways.

Take Canvas, a learning management software that was deployed in 2015 specifically for its student-friendly features. Using Canvas, students can download syllabi, course readings, notes, and lectures. They also message other students in the class to find study groups or project partners.

“Canvas has changed how I do group projects,” says Jasmine Zachariah, a senior psychology and women’s studies major. “You can find a group online and do projects through Google docs.”

Senior sociology major Leonella Lopez adds that Canvas helped her find a homework group for a challenging stats class; they continue to meet regularly.

There are many other ways that technology, and the people behind it, have helped students like Zachariah and Lopez stay organized, motivated, and informed.

“Even getting a simple e-mail from an adviser who says, ‘I’m having more walk-in hours,’ is a very nice thing,” Lopez says. “I appreciate it a lot.”

And when times get tough, it’s as easy for students to reach out too. Mechanical engineering junior Jack Nollette struggled in a calculus course, and e-mailed his adviser for advice. With her help, he revised his schedule and took a summer course to catch up.

“I got that all figured out before I got close to the final,” he says.

Student success, after all, starts with the student.