Many CSU campuses over the past few years have created senior-level campus-wide positions charged with improving student success. The trend is not unique to the CSU or to California. Based on unpublished data provided by Education Advisory Board, the number of online job postings for senior-level positions focusing on “student success” has more than tripled nationally since 2010. No matter which university you call home, refocusing campus structures and culture around student learning and success can be challenging. In the following story, Elizabeth Boretz shares some of her experiences helping CSU Fullerton strengthen its campus-wide approach to student success.
In February 2016, I came to CSU Fullerton to fulfill a newly created role as Assistant Vice President for Student Success and Director of Academic Advisement. Before my appointment, the university reorganized its advisement services by creating new Student Success Teams (SST) within each of the eight colleges on campus and at our satellite campus in Irvine. One of my responsibilities is to coordinate the 20 retention and graduation specialists who serve on these SSTs, yet these academic advisors report 70% to the associate dean at their college and 30% to me. This reveals some challenges associated with my kind of position at universities today: we have substantial responsibility to improve student success, but often not a lot of authority.
When I arrived, the SSTs were completing a pilot phase of development. The teams had been created as part of a campus-wide student success initiative, after students voted to increase their fees in 2014 to support improved access to advising services. The university adopted a dual-reporting structure for academic advising for several reasons. First, this held promise to improve availability of the services that undergraduates needed within their college-based Student Success Centers. At the same time, my position was charged with addressing campus-wide priorities for student support, such as standardizing and streamlining the training of advisors, facilitating the adoption of technology tools, managing mandatory advising and special outreach campaigns, and providing consistent assessment and reporting. In many cases, campus-wide student success positions such as mine involve being a respectful partner to each college, department, or division on the one hand, while also firmly addressing student needs through broader-scale community building on the other.
When I joined CSU Fullerton, the university used a diagram resembling an atom to depict each SST. The associate dean of each college inhabited the center, as if a nucleus, encircled by faculty advisors, an assistant dean, a retention specialist, a graduation specialist, and a career specialist. Ironically, CSU Fullerton’s list of core values begins with “student centeredness,” yet students were absent from the graphic. My position was missing as well, and the Academic Advisement Center, which I oversee, appeared in a corner, visually disconnected from the circle of team members. The diagram did, however, accurately depict the extent to which the SSTs were originating as independent units. The SSTs were doing excellent work, but there were indications that service delivery and other standards varied by college, that outreach to and access by students were uneven across campus, and that, without strong campus-wide marketing efforts, many students were unfamiliar with the advisement services available to them.
My strategy in working to provide a stronger campus-wide vision that would include and feature the SSTs was to focus on the priority at the center of our collective mission. Per my title, I focused on “student success” and, secondly, on the empowerment of staff through their roles within a campus-wide team. For example, I reinforced the universal elements of their job descriptions, by setting firm assessment and reporting expectations; I reported our collective student outcomes broadly and regularly; I led the staff in developing their own ideas for an awareness event outdoors called the “Student Success Stampede,” which has become an annual collaboration with Student Affairs; and we began creating a stronger common identity campus-wide, for example through branded collateral such as Tuffy the Titan stress balls with the Student Success Initiative URL printed on them. I also negotiated with the associate deans to carve out time for my co-reporting team members to meet with me three times monthly. After two years of making these kinds of efforts, the cross-campus team identity of the student success initiative has taken root firmly.
CSU Fullerton has won national awards for the collaborative approach of its SSTs. For the fall 2017 cohort of freshmen, the rate of completing the first semester on academic probation dropped to its all-time low, at 13% (down from 24% in 2005). Last spring, our campus-wide campaign of Mandatory Academic Advising Workshops (for students of junior standing) appears to have helped prevent 1,736 deferred graduations. At these workshops, graduation specialists help groups of students plan a completion date and program of study for their final year. Since the inauguration of the SST model, the achievement gap between underrepresented and traditional first-time-freshman populations has dropped by half (from 10% to 5%), and we have eliminated this gap completely among transfer students.
In building cross-campus momentum toward a culture focused on student success, one marker that I look for is the extent to which the disparate teams experience the value of working collaboratively. In our 2017 annual retreat, the SST members from each of the colleges sketched new illustrations of the structure of their work—and every sketch placed students at the center of the diagram. At our 2018 retreat, we reviewed a new graphic that presents our services through the metaphor of a tree: rooted in our professional context, nourished by collaborative leadership. The Academic Advisement Center supports the base of the trunk, inseparable from the college teams. At the center of the trunk, surrounded by faculty, the SSTs, and others, are the students.