John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A First: A Student Success Plan for First Year to Graduate School

I am more than familiar with plans to improve student success at the first-year and transfer student experience levels. That is primarily what I do professionally these days—helping campuses develop “Foundations of Excellence” action plans to improve student success. And we are finding that if a college creates a plan and then actually implements it to a high degree, then in the aggregate, institutions realize an 8.2% retention increase. But what I hadn’t seen until recently was an action plan that spanned the entire undergraduate years and reaches into the beginning graduate school experience. Now I have seen such a plan and I am a believer that one can and must be created.

Specifically, I had the privilege and pleasure of visiting recently South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. Last year a substantial mass of faculty, academic and student affairs administrators created a plan to improve student success. In my judgment, they are doing everything right.

They began with a comprehensive assessment process, inspired especially by their NSSE data and their retention and gradation rate data. Then they created a concise vision statement as the core philosophical underpinning for the plan. This was followed by the development of 11 core values that will also be the basis for the plan.

They had a steering committee and eleven accompanying “design” teams to create the specific components of the plan. All the design teams have an equal number of academic folks (including faculty) and student affairs officers. At the top of the pyramid is a high level of integrated leadership and partnership between the chief academic and chief student affairs officers, both of whom happen to be women.

The plan starts with pre enrollment; moves into and through the first year; and has sophomore year, junior year, and senior year experience components. It has a plethora of programmatic elements so it is definitely not a one shot panacea, with a silver bullet.

The implementation of the plan is staged between now and 2014. This makes a great deal of sense to roll this out gradually and with measured assessment.

I was and am inspired by their vision, courage, creativity, innovation, collaboration, and commitment. I urge my readers to check this out and watch what South Dakota State University does. They will be worth watching.

-John N. Gardner

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