This entry is part 4 of 28 in the series Spring - 2017



by Jeff Dodge

When Colorado State University President Tony Frank announced in his 2011 Fall Address that the campus should raise its six-year graduation rate to 80 percent, there was a collective gulp among the cadre of CSU leaders who had worked so hard to get that figure up closer to 70 percent.

Especially since the average for institutions like CSU is estimated at about 62 percent.

“We had no idea,” laughs Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes. “I remember looking at my colleagues, and we all had this look of terror. ‘Is he serious?’ We really had to up our game.”

“One of the great privileges of being president of an institution like this is that you can get up on any podium and say something and everybody thinks they have to do it,” Frank says with a smile. “After the address, some of the people who had been working so hard for the past five years stopped by my office and said, ‘So this 80 percent – any ideas on what we do next?’

“I knew we had been making great progress toward our original goals, and that 80 percent was a huge stretch goal,” he continues. “But I’d rather set a big stretch goal, and miss it by a bit but still make incredible progress in striving toward it, than set smaller incremental goals and perhaps still not attain our larger institutional goals.”


Hitting that 80 percent – as well as reaching other 2020 goals such as a 60 percent four-year graduation rate (it’s 38 percent among comparable peers) and completely eliminating “gaps” in graduation rates for first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color – will take a multi-pronged effort that has become the hallmark of the Student Success Initiative, or SSI.

While much still depends on budget allocations and the recommendations of the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Student Success, the second phase of the initiative, dubbed “SSI 2,” will likely require CSU to at least continue what has been working so far. That includes getting more undergraduates involved in high-impact co-curricular practices, such as research with faculty, outreach activities, and internships; expanding the number of Key Communities; and taking full advantage of CSU’s 70 academic success coordinators, according to Paul Thayer, special assistant to the provost and associate vice president emeritus for student success.

“We’ve been doing a much better job recognizing when students are experiencing difficulty and reacting in a caring and proactive way to provide support,” he says.

But SSI 2 will also mean focusing on some new areas, Thayer adds, like paying more attention to students’ transition to years three and four (so far, most emphasis has been on year one and the move to year two at CSU) and helping faculty give feedback to students sooner in their courses.

Telling students how they’re doing early in the semester, while they’re still getting used to a new course environment – even if they’re not struggling at all – will have a positive effect on retention.

“Early feedback makes an important difference, especially for freshmen, to stay in the class and stay enrolled at the University,” says Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs Kelly Long. “The next steps of SSI will involve our faculty in understanding how much their classroom practice can be used to encourage students to become more capable learners across the curriculum. We hope the faculty see themselves as part of something larger than the individual classes they teach.”


“What we’ve got to do in SSI 2 is double down on the emphasis of data-informed initiatives on how to enhance engagement of both the curricular and co-curricular sides of the house, and tie that increased engagement to increased learning,” explains Alan Lamborn, associate provost for educational attainment. “And we need to do that in a way that is quite expressly and systematically attentive to the diversity of the human condition, because what that engagement looks like – and what that learning looks like – will vary across the different cultural populations and histories that people bring.”

Reaching the next round of goals will also require continuing to involve every unit on campus.

“No single person is driving these,” Thayer says. “We’ve got so many people, so many divisions involved.”

“I can’t think of a group that stands outside this initiative,” Long adds. “That’s exciting.”

Long, who was a first-generation undergraduate before CSU even tracked such a status, said her biggest challenge at that time was “not knowing the code.” In other words, not knowing who to ask for help and being afraid to ask – or being embarrassed to admit that she didn’t know something. She figured out those things with the assistance of fellow first-generation students and some empathetic faculty.

“I had some amazing professors early on in English and journalism who helped me, and that made all the difference in the world,” Long says. “Sometimes the challenge is helping people understand what they don’t know – and helping them say what they don’t know.”

Quote by Angela Groves


Indeed, much of the continuing success of SSI depends on all CSU employees embracing their role as educators.

“I think the initiative has been a really well-kept secret, and it can’t be a secret anymore,” Hughes says. “Everyone needs to be on board. We don’t want students to leave saying, ‘Nobody reached out to me.’ All of us – staff, faculty, and administrators – play a big role in the success of our students.”

After all, the future of the Student Success Initiative relies not on the long-serving individuals such as Thayer, Hughes, Lamborn, and Frank who have steadily and consistently shepherded it, but on the extent to which the initiative is woven into the fabric of the campus as an enduring element of its culture.

“A lot of times, when the person who created something leaves, it’s dead in the water,” Long says. “But that’s not where we are. The gift they’ve left us is a legacy that is not personality-based but embedded in the units. These things will continue to function without the extraordinary team of people who helped institutionalize the first phase of SSI.”

“By 2020, the core team of administrators who have been working on SSI will have been working together here at CSU for about 20 years,” Frank says. “We all have to look at who will replace us. Of course, we can always search outside the University, but if we all retire at the same time and leave the administrative cupboard bare, we will have done the University a great disservice. But I think the idea that everyone on campus has a role to play in student success has become part of our institutional culture that will outlast us all.”


There are even some students who have been touched by an element of SSI – while they may not know the acronym – and are already giving back to make sure it continues. Senior Angela Groves, whose graduating high school class in Denver had only 89 students, found comfort and guidance when she joined the Key Explore community.

“Being in that small group really helped me, because it’s a campus of 30,000 students,” she says. “As much as I felt like I didn’t really belong in other spaces on campus, I belonged in my cluster in Key.”

With the help and support of her Key mentor and adviser, Groves says she got to know herself better and recalls the exact moment she decided what she wanted to study.

“I literally ran to the ethnic studies department and filled out the paperwork to declare my major,” she says. “I think where Key helped me is to find a lot of different resources for things that aligned with my passions and what I wanted to do and who I am as a person.”

Now Groves is paying it forward: She serves as a Key Explore mentor to students who are undecided – just like she was.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today – and as involved – without Key,” she says. “I don’t know that I’d be in the same major, or graduating on time. Now it’s my job to help make other students successful in whatever they do.”