Closing Equity Gaps, Hitting Historic Highs in Student Outcomes, and Reaching Preeminence: Reflections on the Leadership Journey at USF

After a conversation on the student success journey of the University of South Florida (USF) with their president, Dr. Judy Genshaft, and vice president for student success, Paul Dosal, I began reflecting on two of my recent reads. The first was Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker; the second was Atomic Habits by James Clear. Pinker’s book makes the compelling case that all the click-bait catastrophe stories and modern-news-media pile ons about how things are going to ‘Hades in a hand basket’ notwithstanding, you absolutely can reach big goals.

Dr. Genshaft and her leadership team had some big—and many would say unreasonable—goals for USF: to become a model of student success and a preeminent research university. When they dug into this work in the mid 2000’s, their graduation rate was 38% and their first-year freshman retention rate was in the 60’s. Moreover, they were doing about 145 million in sponsored research. Given the second law of thermodynamics—ongoing systems tend toward entropy over improvement—one would think they would be more likely to spiral down, rather than rise up. Many a local pundit and a number of national thought leaders in the education space agreed. Maybe they could improve a little, but no big moves seemed likely. However, as Pinker argues in his book, modern history is replete with signs of hope. While progress is neither the norm nor guaranteed, focused leaders and methodical movements have made significant gains against seemingly stacked odds in a variety of fields. Using examples from those tackling the thorniest issues including hunger, poverty, crime, maternal health, and child mortality, Pinker makes his case that good work and substantial progress is absolutely possible. But it takes information, insight, energy, and committed leadership.

In short, Pinker points leaders toward a path that requires of travelers persistence, learning, and a real systems orientation. In the book  Atomic Habits, James Clear agrees. He puts it simply: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Amen! The education field is full of dedicated and caring teams with big and meaningful goals. Reaching them, however, as Clear notes, takes deep systematic work informed by solid data and focused effort. It takes a commitment to try and test, try and test, and try and test again to begin to improve a wide range of systems. In the world of higher education, it means taking a big picture look at your policies, practices, academics, and student supports. No single strategy or best practice will work. Moreover, it takes the patience and persistence to get “one percent better” in an array of interconnected people, process, and technology systems. Indeed, Clear’s explanation of the one-percent-better road to realizing the benefits of compound interest is a must read for student-success innovators.

Dr. Genshaft and Dr. Dosal had hope. Lots of it. And they had focus. But, more important, they and their teams had the patience and persistence to get a little better in a number of different areas over time. We met their team in 2013 as they had hit some stubborn plateaus in moving the needle on overall student success rates, and especially at eliminating equity/achievement gaps, which were stubbornly impacting diverse and low-income student groups. They resonated with Civitas Learning’s “this is hard work, but good work” approach to student success and rolled up their sleeves and got on the pioneer journey with us. They dove deep into the data coming from our integrated analytics platform, Illume, and Impact tools, explored outcomes and tuned practices across the board, and began to act on their “live data” with a commitment to creating a “culture of care.” Their care-teams/case-management innovation is one of the best examples of the high-tech, high-touch use of analytics that I’ve seen.

Fast-forward to today. In the last year, USF has been recognized as one-of-only-three preeminent universities in the state of Florida. They have moved their six-year graduation rate up to 73 percent, and now are approaching 75 percent. In addition, in the last year, their first-year freshman retention broke through the 91 percent threshold. Also impressive, however, was that they did all of this work as both the numbers and diversity of their student body increased. And, my favorite of all the outcomes, they closed the equity/achievement gaps—both racial and economic. They have been recognized as a top performer by EdTrust for closing both Latino and African American student achievement gaps. All the while, they saw explosive growth in their academic research, moving from 145 million a year to 568 million. More on this work is available here in this case study.

None of this work was easy. All of this work was necessary. As you listen to the podcast that follows, you’ll understand why it’s important to have hope; it’s important to benchmark, explore best practices, and try new things; but as Dr. Genshaft and Dr. Dosal make clear, it’s absolutely vital to look at your own data–both descriptive and predictive–and learn every day about how to act on the right mix of student success ingredients, bringing them together into recipes that help your institution and your students rise. Check out the conversation here!


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