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Better by Design: Using Actionable Data to Boost Student Success

January 12, 2016

Driven by the moral imperative to strengthen high-quality educational opportunities for current and future generations of students in our increasingly diverse nation, Cal State Fullerton in 2013 launched a five-year strategic plan that set forth clear and ambitious goals for student success. These goals include increasing our four- and six-year graduation rates by at least ten percentage points and narrowing our achievement gap by at least half.

With a diverse student body of nearly 39,000—more than half of whom are first-generation college students—we knew that this would be no small task. We needed to be intentional in our approach to designing and implementing aggressive, effective strategies that would be scalable within all academic departments and across multiple divisions of our institution.

We took a two-pronged approach. First, we changed the way we structured our people; second, we changed the way we organized and leveraged our data.

Student Success Teams: A new organizational structure

During the 2014–15 academic year, we gathered the brightest and most experienced advising minds from across the university and assembled them into college-based Student Success Teams (SSTs). These cross-divisional, cross-functional teams (see “Anatomy of an SST”) operate as independent “advising laboratories” within their respective units.

The chairs of each SST meet monthly to exchange best practices and ensure a cohesive overall strategy. Our goal is to empower the frontlines by giving the SSTs the autonomy to conduct tailor-made advising campaigns while also supporting them with the robust technological and strategic resources of the university as a whole.

Straight A’s: Making data accurate, accessible, and actionable

We also knew that our SSTs would only be as effective as the tools they could employ. Their decisions needed to be grounded in information that was comprehensive, accurate, and easily accessible and navigable. That led us to establish a shared toolbox of technology platforms that draw on multiple best-of-class resources, including a Student Success Dashboard that is updated daily, as well as an advising notes network and a robust predictive analytics system.

These resources allow advisors to identify target student populations with scalpel-like precision based on real-time data, and proactively reach out to students to help them stay on track. For example, in the 2014–15 academic year, our graduation specialists reviewed 6,959 graduation candidates and by engaging in proactive advising, prevented 2,488 graduation deferrals (an increase of nearly 500 percent from the previous year).

During the past two academic years, our SSTs have used these technological platforms and data resources to brainstorm, design, and implement numerous innovative advising practices, including gap-closing campaigns that aimed to increase success specifically for underrepresented student populations.

For example, using the predictive analytics tool to identify concentrations of higher-risk students, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences designed a campaign in fall 2015 targeting criminal justice majors—a department comprising 70 percent underrepresented students, a majority of whom are also first-generation—called the Criminal Justice Success Academy. The Academy consisted of four workshops featuring practitioners and connected students to campus resources such as the Career Center and other on- and off-campus networking events, internships, study abroad opportunities, and field placements.

In addition to using data to inform the creation and implementation of campaigns, each SST is tracking a variety of quantitative and qualitative measurements to evaluate the impact of their activities; these measurements provide continual feedback about what works and what doesn’t, and will be used to shape subsequent iterations of these interventions. For example, the SST in the College of Health and Human Development found that the Peer Mentor Program had a statistically significant impact on the cumulative GPA of mentees.  As a result, the SST has focused additional efforts on expanding this program, which now serves as a model for other colleges across the university.

Our collective results to date? Excellent. Between 2014 and 2015, our six-year graduation rate increased by 6.6 percentage points, from 55.7 percent to 62.3 percent, and our achievement gap between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students decreased by 25 percent.

But what has been most gratifying is hearing the stories of individual students who have been touched by these programs. This is the real power of data: not the showy charts or vast spreadsheets of numbers and graphs, but our ability to transform those numbers into success stories, with names and faces, and to use the tools we have to help them reach the next stop on their educational journeys.

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