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A New Normal: Getting More Students to Graduation


November 25, 2019

Important work is taking place to chart a course for the future of our institution. Through a collaborative process spearheaded by innovators from every department on campus, UNC is transforming our approach to strategically enroll and support every one of our students.

By President Andy Feinstein, Ph.D.

Each fall brings new faces, fresh beginnings and boundless opportunities for a new class of UNC students. Students represent an array of diverse backgrounds, interests and aspirations — and each is excited to take the next step on their journey to success.

Bright-eyed and hopeful, some of these students come to UNC with dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse, teacher or musician. Some do not have any idea where their journey will lead, but one thing is certain — none of those students come to UNC to fail.

Despite that, data since 2013 tells us that for one reason or another, almost 30 percent of those first-year students are not returning for a second year; 40 percent do not make it to their third year.

Quite simply, we as an institution have to do better. We surely should not settle for seeing more than 40 percent leave before their third year.

We have to improve our retention rates. We have to fulfill our promise to students. For those who want to finish in four years, we owe them the support and guidance to succeed.

Together, with the right focus and support, we can do better, and we will do better.

That is why implementing our Strategic Enrollment and Student Success (SESS) plan is so vital.

In an effort to more effectively enroll and support our students, UNC launched the Strategic Enrollment and Student Success (SESS) plan in the spring of 2019.

The SESS plan has four key priorities, which are: strategically enrolling a greater number of first-year students, increasing transfer enrollment, developing an integrated network to support student success, and developing a proactive strategy for coaching students with the greatest risk of attrition.

Each priority has a dedicated action team that is responsible for reviewing, researching and recommending solutions to address these recruitment and retention initiatives. The collaborative work of these action teams is driven by specific measurable goals.

Action Team 1 

Working to align Admissions’ efforts, and the efforts of its key collaborators, to the UNC enrollment and student success vision by intentionally recruiting, selecting and onboarding the students UNC is best positioned to support. Through these coordinated efforts, they are working to strategically grow the enrollment of first-time full-time students to 2,150 by 2023.

Action Team 2

Developing formal and sustainable partnerships with area community colleges and establishing a deliberate strategy to grow transfer enrollment from 516 to 635 students by 2023 and enhance transfer student services in the process.

Action Team 3

Tasked with developing an integrated network approach to partnering with students to ensure their success and progression. This should improve first-year student retention rates from 72 percent to 78 percent; improve the four-year graduation rate from 27 percent to 38 percent, and improve the six-year graduation rate from 46 percent to 58 percent.

Action Team 4

Developing a focused, intrusive and proactive strategy for coaching students with the greatest risk of attrition. Their goal is to close the first-year retention gap between first-generation and non-first-generation students, which currently sits at 66 percent and 75 percent respectively.

Together, Professor Joan Clinefelter and Interim Assistant Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Sean Broghammer are co-chairing an implementation committee which oversees each of these action teams and ensures these key priorities are met by 2023.

SESS Action Team Progress

  • 1. Collaborating to Recruit and Enroll 21st Century Students

    The landscape of higher education has changed significantly over the past several years. While a majority of states are seeing declines in college age students, Colorado is one of a handful of states with modest gains.

    Although this is good news, Colorado remains a competitive recruitment environment where students and families are presented with a multitude of options to fit their educational goals. As an institution, we simply have to adapt to the changing landscape and overcome these increased enrollment pressures.

    Digging deep into institutional data, we are learning more about the students who are most successful at UNC. The students we are best equipped to serve.

    Enrollment among first-generation students has increased by 11 percent since fall 2014, and that population now represents nearly half of the incoming first-time full-time student cohort.

    We hear time and time again that our diverse and inclusive community makes those students feel welcome and at home, but that is not enough.

    Only 51 percent of those first-generation students reach their third year at UNC. That tells me there are gaps in our services and we are failing to meet those students’ needs. We have to do better.

    Based on these findings, we are modifying our marketing, recruitment, admission, orientation and advising processes.

    UNC is most effective when we seek to understand who our students are and how to connect with them. In order to remain competitive, UNC must establish a clear identity and tailor our support services to help the students who fit within that identity persist and succeed.

  • 2. Supporting Our Transfer Students

    Institutional data tells us there is one group of students who are consistently successful at UNC.

    Transfer students.

    Nearly half of the 2013 transfer cohort graduated within three years of enrolling, and we retain an average of 86 percent of transfer students from Aims Community College annually. 

    Unfortunately, there have been a number of barriers to entry for those transfer students in the past, which is why we have seen an 18 percent decline in transfer applications since 2014.

    We are working to break down those barriers, simplify the transfer process and support the seamless integration of all transfer students. We are auditing the existing procedures for transfer student applications and identifying ways to streamline this process.

    Since we can see that transfer students are experiencing a high level of success at UNC, we are also working to establish a deliberate strategy to continue growing our transfer enrollment and enhancing our transfer student services.

    Our university is fundamentally strong in this area,
    but we owe it to our students and each other to make it even stronger.

    Taking this one step further, innovative transition programs like Aims2UNC allow us to facilitate a seamless transition between institutions. Students who may be a better fit initially in a community college setting can begin taking classes at Aims Community College and get all the benefits of being a student at both institutions.

    This fall, UNC partnered with Aims Community College to unveil Aims2UNC, a unique program that streamlines and simplifies the path for students to transition directly to UNC after earning an associate’s degree at Aims.

    “This is an extraordinarily exciting time for both Aims and UNC,” says Leah Bornstein, Ph.D., president and CEO of Aims Community College. “This is an inclusive program, so we want to encourage anyone who is interested in moving forward in their educational opportunities to be part of this.”

    As a student at both institutions, participants will get access to the best of all worlds including access to UNC services, events and clubs, streamlined transfer courses, and enhanced support from an Aims2UNC transition advisor assigned to each student enrolled in the new program. These advisors help Aims students prepare for admission to UNC as students and navigate specific program requirements.

    “Studies have shown that student success is correlated with building community and developing a sense of belonging. The Aims2UNC program is about student success in both their academic work and helping them achieve their career goals and aspirations,” says UNC Provost Mark Anderson, Ph.D.

    The program has already received more than 100 applications, and some of these students are now living in our housing and attending on-campus activities. Leaders are optimistic that Aims2UNC will not only improve the student experience but support the success of even more students well into the future.   

    “I wouldn’t be where I am today without both Aims and UNC,” says Menan Bergman, ’00.

  • 3. An Integrated Approach to Student Success

    One of the largest challenges we face is meeting the evolving needs of students. 

    Although digital technology is the often the preferred method of communication for our students, we have not kept up.

    A majority our student services are still designed around face-to-face contact and as a result, many students struggle to find advising support or assistance with financial aid. They sometimes do not bother to ask, which is a factor in our retention rates.

    We have to start meeting students where they are and making it easier to find the support they need. This is certainly an area we are working to improve, but you do not have to look very far to find examples of effective support systems already functioning around campus. 

    Our Cumbres program provides individualized support and mentorship to students preparing to be English as a Second Language teachers. The leaders who emerge from this program are inspiring, and the program’s consistent retention and graduation rates are something we aspire to replicate across campus.

    Since 1972, our Center for Human Enrichment has supported the academic achievement of first-generation students. Offering financial literacy resources, individualized personal counseling, learning support and a unique first-year experience, this program is consistently recognized as one of the top programs of its kind in the nation.

    Thanks to these services and more, 95 percent of students enrolled in CHE persisted from the fall 2017 semester to the fall 2018 semester, and 96 percent were in good academic standing at the end of the spring 2018 semester.

    While those results are laudable, we are working to ensure every student has access to that same guidance and support, no matter their background or major.

    That is why we are analyzing recent student survey results to identify the highest priority barriers students face and developing solutions. We are working to foster collaboration and implement strategies proven to support student success campuswide.

    All of this will eventually lead to the creation of an integrated network of positive support systems that can meet student needs now and well into the future.

    Looking at fall-to-fall retention rates among first-time first-year students, Burkhard Englert, dean of the College of Natural Health Sciences, realized they had a problem on their hands. Only 63 percent of those first-time students were returning each fall, troubling considering the 71.5 percent general UNC retention rate and the 80 percent retention rate most other Colorado four-year public institutions see.

    That is why he asked Beckie Croissant to establish an NHS advising center over the summer.

    “We sent out a survey to our current students regarding their advising experience, and although most of it was positive, there was a lot lacking in terms of developmental and social support. They got support on the academic side, like what classes to take, but they were missing the other side of connections being made and just having somewhere to come and feel a connection or feel like part of something,” Croissant says.

    Centrally located on the first floor of Ross Hall, the new space welcomes students with a living room, snacks, a microwave and access to homey offices with helpful advisors — personal touches to help create a sense of belonging that carries these students though graduation. 

    “We're going to really start connecting with them early and making sure they're in the right major, because even though we want to increase retention in our college, our main focus is making sure the fit is right for students,” Croissant says.

    The best part — the advisors located in this new NHS advising center are already collaborating with their colleagues across campus. Assistant Vice President for Student Success Stephanie Torrez is spearheading an initiative to connect and oversee all advising services on campus. Regular training and communication among the various professional and faculty advisors will ensure that no matter where a student seeks advice, they receive the same initial contacts and context they need to succeed.

  • 4. Keeping Our Students on Track 

    There are some areas where we are finding our students need more support than others. 

    Nursing is the most sought-after major at UNC, with nearly double the enrollment of the next largest major (Business Administration). But at least half of our students who enter UNC seeking Nursing do not make it to their third year, often because the demand is higher than the available slots in the program.

    Program capacities are not the only factor; we also lose students when they are not academically prepared to succeed.

    Although unsurprising, data backs up the correlation between high school GPA and student success at UNC. Students with a GPA below 3.0 are not performing as well as their peers. These students have a much higher likelihood of failing or withdrawing from courses, which is troubling, but by looking at these trends we have already identified areas for immediate improvement.

    Faculty members are now working to coordinate exam schedules for difficult classes like calculus, chemistry and biology, so students who are enrolled in those courses concurrently are not overloaded. Advisors are also working to help students strategically spread out those difficult course loads so they do not get overwhelmed. 

    We are identifying strategies and resources for faculty to use in critical Liberal Arts Core courses like ENG 122–College Composition, and we are testing those early intervention strategies with students in a special pilot program.

    Simply by normalizing the curriculum across all college algebra courses so all students received the content at the same pace, the number of D’s, F’s and withdrawals were cut in half. The Mathematical Sciences Department has also added a supplemental algebra course, aimed solely at providing extra support to students enrolled in college algebra based on placement test performance.   

    These are small but intentional changes that are already making a big difference for our students.

    In an effort to support new students, for the first time in many years, the Kenneth W. Monfort College of Business is offering a first-year seminar, which introduces students to the basics of the business world.

    The Dean's Leadership Council had long discussed the idea of creating a first-year seminar, and with campuswide discussions taking place about strategies to improve student success, this fall seemed to be the perfect opportunity to finally launch that course.    

    “We’ve seen a lot of students come in, and they want to be a business major, but they don’t really know what business is. They want to be an Accounting major, but they don’t know what an accountant does, and they don’t realize the broad array of opportunities that there are in accounting or finance or marketing,” says Don Gudmundson, Ph.D., one of the creators and facilitators of the course.

    Prior to this course, most business students did not have much reason to step foot in the building, let alone interact with successful business alumni, until at least their second year. Now that students are equipped with context, experience and valuable contacts, college leaders hope this course will help students persist and reach that ultimate goal of graduation on time, or even early.

    “What we wanted to do was to try and give the students more information earlier in their education, so they don’t have to make as many changes later on. That way they’ll be able to get through their program quicker and more smoothly rather than being a second semester junior who gets into some of the upper-level courses and realizes that’s not what they want to do,” Gudmundson says.

Implications for the Future

Although the year 2030 may seem far off, it is really just right around the corner.

All of this work taking place in support of SESS is not only steering our students toward success, it is also laying a critical foundation for the strategic visioning and planning that we are in the midst of. As a campus, we are envisioning what we want UNC to be in 10 years — and setting clear, measurable goals to get there.

Over the course of the past year we have made significant strides in establishing a solid foundation on which our community can build.

Our preliminary efforts are encouraging. The most recent rates for fall-to-fall retention, four-year graduation and six-year graduation are all the highest rates that the university has on record for those metrics. We have done meaningful work in shoring up the budget, examining our institutional structure and laying the groundwork for unparalleled student success. Through town hall meetings, my travels around the state and various conversations with students, faculty, staff and alumni, that vision for the future has started to take shape. 

But our work is far from over.

With your help, we established a vision statement this fall. This spring we turn our attention to drafting and refining goals to help us finalize our vision for 2030.

The end result will be a roadmap for our future — a future where each and every one of our students has access to the support and resources they need to graduate and achieve their dreams.

Can you see it yet? UNC

Strategic Planning Efforts