Building Culture of Completion

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The University of Utah and Lumina Foundation hosted the summit, which drew representatives of 22 institutions to the U’s campus to discuss college completion challenges and opportunities. The title of this panel was “Supporting and Engaging the Student.” Panel members included: Carolyn Bassett, associate provost for student success, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Ann Bisantz, dean of Undergraduate Studies, University at Buffalo; Louis Hunt, senior vice provost for Enrollment Management and Services, North Carolina State University; Teri Longacre, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Student Success, University of Houston; and Michael Mardis, chief student affairs officer, University of Louisville. The keynote speaker and moderator was Kim Wilcox, chancellor, University of California, Riverside.


Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, uses three words to describe how his institution increase graduation rates by 20 percentage points in seven years: culture, people and programs.

“When we talk about student success at Riverside, we tend not to talk about individual programs,” said Wilcox. “We talk about the special way our campus has evolved and how we work to maintain that. We talk about primary practices and all the things that are the nuts and bolts here. We think about it as a culture first, and the program pieces get added on after.”

Wilcox was the keynote speaker and moderator for a panel on “Supporting and Engaging the Student” at The College Completion Summit hosted by The University of Utah and Lumina Foundation on Sept. 20, 2019. The summit took place at the University of Utah and drew senior leaders from 22 institutions across the country.

Panelists agreed that cultural shifts across their campuses were key to making comprehensive changes aimed at driving student success and degree completion.

Ann Bisantz, dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Buffalo, said her institution adopted a “Finish in Four” initiative in 2012 that focused on curriculum, advising and physical space.

The initiative also engages students upon entrance or soon after in committing to being part of a Finish in Four cohort. Every major has defined a four-year curricular plan and the university has identified high-demand classes to make sure they are offered and have space needed.

“If you want more kids in the seats, you’ve got to figure out where those seats are. It reveals the need for more of those kinds of infrastructure projects,” said Bisantz.

Teri Longacre, vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Student Success at the University of Houston, changing an institution’s culture requires engagement of everyone on campus. For the University of Houston, which has a high population of transfer students, that also required close partnerships with community colleges to help students seamlessly transfer without accumulating unneeded or untransferable credit hours.

“That’s helped shift our advising culture, along with some infrastructure things that we have done, from being more reactive, transactional to more proactive, student focused, completion focused,” said Longacre.

Carolyn Bassett, associate provost for Student Success at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said her school created a student success unit in 2016 with very specific and intentional goals: Coordinate many of the different efforts across campus; create a cohesive group infrastructure; and figure out where there may be gaps and how to fill those gaps.

“UMass started to make very intentional efforts about messaging clearly, shifting the culture, including everyone in the project,” said Bassett. “the good work has been happening in lots of different ways.”

North Carolina State University has seen a dramatic increase in its four-year graduation rates—from 42% to 63%, said Louis Hunt, senior vice provost of Enrollment Management. That increase was driven by looking at students holistically and providing financial aid that is mainly based on need rather than academics.

“We are trying to remove economic barriers, financial barriers to students,” said Hunt. “When we looked at our data, we found students weren’t leaving because they weren’t academically capable. They were leaving for a lot of other reasons. We had to figure out how we take care of the whole student, how do we identify problems that they might be having?”

Filling in some of those gaps, especially for low-income and first-generation students is what the University of Louisville found was needed, said Michael Mardis, chief student affairs officer and vice provost for Student Affairs. Louisville started providing additional resources, such as the Porter Scholarship Program, which provides aid for incoming African American students. The program is named after Woodford Porter, who was the first African American member of the university’s Board of Trustees. Last year, graduation rates for African American students surpassed that of Caucasian and other students, Hunt said.

“The great quote from Woodford Porter that we share often times across the university is, ‘Education is a great equalizer,’” said Mardis. “We know that in this room.That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re so committed to being able to give all students that equal opportunity to have that great equalizer to be able to be successful.”

Louisville also focused on transforming from a commuter campus to a residential campus, growing from 3,000 student beds to close to 9,000. Along with that it has implemented living-learning communities, which led to dramatic increases in completion for those residential students.