The Student Success Initiative at the University of South Florida

Thenation is focused on increasing college completion rates. President Obama is determined that the United States recover its role as the world leader in education by raising higher education attainment rates to 60 percent by 2020. Prominent education organizations, including Lumina Foundation for Education and the Gates Foundation, are promoting this ambitious goal through their grant making and reports.

At the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, we are doing our share to raise college completion rates through a broad-based student success initiative. In fall 2009, Provost Ralph Wilcox and Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall jointly convened a Student Success Task Force to conduct a comprehensive review of current policies and programs on campus and issue recommendations to enhance student success. The union of academic affairs and student affairs driving a student success initiative brought together the two main divisions overseeing various student success programs and policies.

But we didn’t stop there. Recognizing that virtually every unit and department on campus owns a piece of student success, more than 100 people from a wide spectrum of university offices and departments were appointed to the task force, which I had the honor to chair.

When USF System President Judy Genshaft appeared at the inaugural meeting of the task force in November 2009, it sent a powerful message to the entire USF community that the president endorsed this initiative and demanded action. USF would not remain satisfied with a six-year graduation rate hovering around 50 percent, the national average. Our highest level administrators also understood that student success would not bemeasured solely by graduation rates. They charged the task force with developing a broad working definition of student success and identifying the policies, practices, programs, personnel and performances that had to be reviewed, revised and measured to reach our overall goal of enhancing student success.

The committee issued its final report on April 15, 2010. Included was this broad definition of student success: “The University of South Florida will empower students to succeed through educationally purposeful activities, initiatives, and accountability measures that will ensure that students are retained and graduated at higher than predicted rates, with higher degrees of satisfaction and minimal financial indebtedness, and are employed or enter graduate, professional, or post-doctoral programs at high rates, having acquired the skills, knowledge and dispositions to succeed in any of those endeavors they pursue.”

The task force recommended three fundamental reforms: 1) Institutionalize student success as a permanent priority of USF. 2) Integrate student success into the institutional culture of USF. 3) The university should build an institutional research capacity to support student success initiatives.

Beyond this, the task force compiled a list of approximately 250 recommendations, about 50 of them identified as short- or long-term priorities. While many of these touched on policies or programs that are common at many institutions, the institutionalization of student success and the determination to change the institutional culture distinguish the effort at USF as a movement.

The administration has already acted on these recommendations by my appointment as director of student success. Further, the president authorized a $3 million appropriation to support the task force recommendations and appointed a universitywide Student Success Council to offer guidance and advice.

With this level of leadership and institutional commitment, the effort to change the institutional culture, frequently described as an environment “unfriendly” to student success, is already producing tangible results.

The word is out that student success is an institutional priority. Faculty, staff, students and administrators are learning that the board of trustees has approved a strategic plan that identifies student success as one of five objectives. They know that the president, provost, vice presidents and deans, as well as frontline personnel in the registrar, library, cashier’s office, financial aid and maintenance, are being held accountable for student success.

Though substantial, this institutional commitment is not the main force driving the movement; faculty, staff, and administrators who care about student success are driving the movement. They understand that the promotion of student success requires the creation of an institutional culture and environment supportive of student success.

For example, we will succeed when professors happily spend an extra 30 minutes in their office to help a student in need; we will know our efforts are paying off when a frontline staffer in the registrar’s office picks up the phone and calls the graduate school to resolve a problem rather than shuffling the student off to another office. And so, as part of our student success campaign at USF, we are building a network of caring individuals who share our determination to demand more of ourselves and our students.