We believe that every student admitted to the University of South Florida will succeed. The student success movement at USF is built on that simple, fundamental belief. We hold ourselves accountable for our performance, so we have responded well to the new accountability rules and expectations of improved student outcomes.
Since the formation of a Student Success Task Force in 2009-2010, student success has been a strategic priority for the entire institution. We introduced or strengthened a wide range of persistence and completion initiatives, including but not limited to the professionalization of academic advising, course redesigns, and living-learning communities. We saw impressive gains in our retention and graduation rates, but in 2014, the rate of our improvements began to slow down. We had hit a performance plateau that lasted nearly three years.
First-year persistence rates stubbornly hovered around 88 percent, and our six-year graduation rates stalled at 68 percent, both marks just below the thresholds (90 percent and 70 percent) required for USF to qualify as a preeminent university according to state of Florida guidelines. To reach the next level of student success and earn additional state dollars for our performance, we needed to ensure that we retained or graduated an additional 80 students. That’s all it would take to become a preeminent university.
The challenge was to identify those 80 students before they left. Like many public universities, the University of South Florida had recognized the revolutionary role that the application of data and analytics could play in student success. But real improvement in student outcomes required more than data alone: we needed to deliver the right support, to the right students and — most importantly — at the right time.
By 2015, we began to break through this plateau with a new focus on integrating historically disparate data from across our campus to understand the complex challenges that USF students face through a partnership with Civitas Learning. For the first time, our team was breaking down silos of information, developing new insight into the real reasons why we were losing students.
What really made the difference for us was the ability to work methodically to understand the reasons why individual students were struggling, based on “live” signals such as attendance, classroom engagement, and grades. Eventually, we learned that to hit our strategic targets, each and every student mattered. On a campus with 43,000 students, we couldn’t do this without harnessing the power of analytics with caring professionals.
This level of insight to enable action never would have been possible without breaking down the information silos that existed on our campus. But the real game-changer was not just unlocking insights, but actually enabling more frontline professionals to do the hands-on work to help students. After breaking down these information silos, we were able to coordinate the efforts of academic advisers, financial aid staff, resident assistants, counselors, advisers, and other university staff who had the expertise and passion to engage students to get them on the path to graduation at USF. I came to call them a “Care Team,” for they delivered the support our students needed, when they needed it.
The Care Team is working together to diagnose the challenges students are facing and activating the relevant team members to assist each student.
As a result of this approach, our campus has been able to get over that plateau and continue improving. Our six-year graduation rate is 73 percent, and our first-year retention rate stands at 91 percent. More significantly, we’ve eliminated the achievement gaps by race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. In March, USF accepted the prestigious ACE/Fidelity Award for Institutional Transformation in recognition of these student success efforts.
We’re grateful for the recognition, but ultimately, what matters most is the students we’ve been able to help. Putting powerful insights into the hands of staff, advisers and faculty gave them the power to help students. The work was neither simple, nor easy, but the payoff for students has been remarkable.