This is the third in a four-part series that explores how high-performing colleges and universities use data to improve student retention and graduation rates. Detailed lessons from eight institutions are shared in our higher education practice guide. This blog series highlights how some of those colleges have made progress and how others can follow their example to increase student success.

When President Steve Weber arrived at San Diego State University in 1996, he understood the strong culture of shared governance with the faculty senate and knew that they were an important group to engage to move student success programs and strategies forward.

Thus, before proposing any changes, the administration spent significant time engaging the Faculty Senate in the student access agenda. Working together, they implemented a number of changes: Giving all students a four-year MAP (Major Academic Plan) for their degree, force-registering them into required remedial and foundational courses in the first year, and making 15 credits the norm rather than the exception. These and other efforts helped dramatically increase graduation rates at San Diego State over time.

Student Success Gains at San Diego University

At Virginia Commonwealth University, a cross-campus team tracked students from fall 2007 through fall 2009 to better understand the two-year retention rate. Among other metrics, they incorporated demographics (race and gender), high school GPA, SAT scores, major, and college GPA into their analysis. They found that 72 percent of students remained after two years, but patterns varied greatly by student group. Students in good academic standing had retention rates more than twice as high as students who were not. First semester GPA was the strongest predictor of retention with the second semester GPA being the next strongest predictor. Surprisingly, high school GPA and SAT score were not very good predictors.

With this data, the VCU team engaged stakeholders, including the college president, vice president, council of deans, and board members. They concluded that the best way to improve graduation rates was to improve academic performance in the first and second year of study and accordingly increase retention in second and third years. VCU implemented an elaborate rising freshman summer orientation followed by a mandatory, cohort-based, two-semester program of advising, tutoring, and other support services. These and other efforts resulted in the school’s highest first-year retention rate — 86 percent in 2012-13 — and an increase in the number of students in good academic standing, rising from 73 percent to 82 percent.

San Diego State and VCU each provide a template for using data to engage and leverage campus stakeholders to establish programs to improve retention and graduation rates. By doing this, university leaders can chart a course to improved student success.