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Increasing student success through innovation

If graduation is the measure of success, higher education fails half of the people who walk through the door.

In an effort to change that phenomenon, the University of Utah has joined a national collaboration of public research institutions dedicated to making innovations to better serve the students often found at the margins. 

“I came here as a college student in 1987 and there are too many things that look and feel exactly the same as 1987,” said Taylor Randall, president of the U. “But you look at the way the world is changing, we have got to make sure that our students are prepared, that we’re preparing them to have really, really different outcomes.”

On Nov. 30, the U became part of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). This coalition is working to dramatically increase the number and diversity of college graduates in the U.S. 

“We believe if we change what we do for students who are admitted, that actually changes the outcome,” said Bridget Burns, the founding CEO of UIA. “We aren’t saying, ‘Just let more people in,’ we’re saying, ‘Do a better job of who we already have and that actually transforms the outcomes for our country.”

As a first-generation college student who grew up in poverty in rural Montana, the work Burns does with UIA is personal. According to Burns, first-generation students carry an “extra backpack of challenges.”

“If we center them in our design, the changes that we will make will raise the water level for everyone,” she said. 

The U’s membership in the alliance is a result of the efforts faculty and staff have made over the previous decade to implement a variety of student success strategies, said T. Chase Hagood, the senior associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies. 

“Membership in the alliance is a signal that the University of Utah is ready to engage at the next level alongside the most innovative universities in American higher education,” Hagood said.

As the state’s flagship institution, the University of Utah’s obligation extends beyond U students to each of the 3.4 million people who call Utah home. University leaders aim for the U to become a top 10 public university with unsurpassed social impact. This includes supporting Utah’s growing knowledge economy and expanding the school’s contributions. UIA membership adds to what university leaders mean when they say the U is one of America’s leading public research institutions. 

The alliance is selective in its membership, with only 15 large public research universities in its ranks—including Arizona State University, The Ohio State University, University of Colorado Denver, Purdue University and University of Central Florida. Per the UIA design, the U will be the only institution from Utah to join the alliance. Since its founding in 2014, UIA institutions have increased their total annual graduates by 32%. Founding members are on track to award 136,000 additional degrees by 2025—double their original degree attainment goal.

As the U joins the alliance, there are already a variety of changes underway to better support student success, including the following: 

  • Implementing proactive advising practices
  • Increasing the percentage of incoming freshmen in cohort experiences like LEAP, Block U and Honors to 80%
  • Updating general education requirements to improve ease of access for transfer students
  • Providing more undergraduate research and experiential learning opportunities
  • Creating a vibrant, 24/7 campus by increasing housing options
  • Hiring Andrea Thomas for the newly created position of chief experience officer

While eliminating barriers that students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds face takes time, doing so as part of the alliance will give the U the benefit of learning from the efforts of other schools engaged in this work. Randall noted that while collaboration is harder than competition, the outcome is worth it. 

“You don’t have to be high up on the org chart to drive change. Everyone can help with innovation work,” Burns said. “There are small things you can do that will transform your experience and the experience of your students.”