Commencement Week: A short history of student success

“We can do better.”

That simple statement of belief set in motion a decade-long initiative that has transformed Colorado State University and the way it serves its undergraduates, now and in the future.

“In 2005, in terms of persistence to graduation, we were just about average, not struggling but not excelling either,” recalls Alan Lamborn, then vice provost for undergraduate affairs and now associate provost for educational attainment for CSU. At the time, CSU’s six-year graduation rate was just above 60 percent – up from about 50 percent in 1990, but it had remained more or less flat since 1995. “The administration had been looking at research on programs that were above average, and didn’t see any reason we couldn’t implement some of those best practices here.”

And so, with the full support of then-Provost Tony Frank, the Student Success Initiative was born.

If SSI’s founding belief statement was simple, its goals were audacious. By the time the class of 2017 received their degrees, CSU would:

  • Achieve a 70 percent or greater six-year graduation rate
  • Eliminate the gap between six-year graduation rates of minority and non-minority students, adjusted for entering background characteristics

The students receiving their diplomas this week are living proof of the success of the University in reaching these goals. The story of how CSU made it happen has become a model for other universities around the country, and featured by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities as a best practice for its members.


You can read more about the success of the Student Success Initiative in the Spring 2017 issue of CSU Magazine, available by mail and online in early June.


It wasn’t a quick fix. The first step to increasing the graduation rate 10 percentage points was to find out what had been holding it at 60 percent for the last decade.

A core team coordinated by Paul Thayer, then assistant vice president for Student Affairs and now special assistant to the provost and emeritus associate vice president for student success, reviewed the existing research and discovered that the best outcomes were achieved when learning in the classroom continued outside the classroom. They began gathering information on what it would take to align curricular and co-curricular activities on campus to maximize student engagement and deepen learning outcomes.

“The one question we asked everyone from Admissions to Housing was, ‘Why do we do it that way?’” Thayer reclass. “If the best answer was, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ that wasn’t really an answer, and we knew we had work to do.”

Access and success

Student success can be measured by recruitment and retention – why students chose a school and why they continue on to graduation.

“Any student success initiative had to provide both access and success,” Thayer adds.

The team presented its report outlining how the University could reach the goals to Frank in 2006. The overall effort would be massive, but could be achieved in manageable steps.

“We recommended to the Board of Governors that the Student Success Initiative be included in the budget,” says Frank, now CSU president and chancellor of the CSU System. “They accepted the recommendation, and we gave SSI the green light to proceed, within available budgetary resources each year.”

By including the University’s Office of Institutional Research in the SSI effort, the team identified specific indicators of academic success for first-year students: The graduation rate difference between students who complete foundational math, composition, and 30 credits in the first year compared to those who do not is about 46 percentage points.

Armed with this and other data, SSI transformed the academic advising process to ensure first-year students are directed to and supported in completing these core courses. The Center for Advising and Student Achievement, now the Collaborative for Student Achievement, was created to focus specialized staff time and attention on the needs of first-year, undeclared, transfer, first-generation, and other traditionally underserved students. Today, one in four CSU students is the first in their family to go to college; one in five receives a Pell grant; and one in four is a student of color.

The success of student success at CSU has been the result of rearranging the University – every office, every department, every faculty and staff member – to place the student at the center of every initiative undertaken.

And the result of the massive effort? Colorado State has not only achieved those two original audacious goals, but is already working on 2020 and beyond.