As part of an ongoing series, Florida College Access Network will profile the innovative efforts of our partners to make college readiness, access, and success a reality for all Floridians. This week we follow the Office of Student Success at the University of South Florida in Tampa, an ally in Goal 2025, a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Florida residents who hold a high-quality degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2025.

College access programs can tend to focus on direct student needs—financial aid, mentoring, study skills and so on.  Yet when it comes to college, it is often the overall teaching and learning environment that can make or break a student’s higher education experience.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa, that responsibility lies with the Office of Student Success.

“Our five-year plan is to push the six-year graduation rate up to 65% for first-time-in-college students,” says Cheryl Anderson, communication and marketing officer for the Office of Student Success. “We do that by focusing on what leads to student success.”

In short, the office doesn’t work directly with students but crafts and coordinates the policies and programs that govern their academic and social lives. Overseen by Dr. Paul Dosal since its founding as a task force in 2009, the Office of Student Success keeps abreast of the latest national research on what makes students happy on campus and successful in class. The latest studies conclude that the most productive students live, work and get involved on campus. They take challenging classes that ditch long passive lectures in favor of technology-enhanced, interactive sessions that allow them to communicate directly with other students, teachers, and graduate assistants.

At USF, that has meant working with instructors to design a complete overhaul of College Algebra, a “gatekeeper” course required for several of the most popular majors.  From 2007 to 2010, over 1 in 3 students failed the class.  Working with the math department, Student Success overhauled the course from a passive lecture to one where students come into class, ready to dissect problems they have already completed online at a technology lab in the library. More than just a bank of computers, the lab occupies an entire library floor where tutors and teaching assistants stand ready to aid students who encounter material they do not understand. The results? After just one pilot year, failure rates plummeted to just 18%, inspiring the department to extend its approach to other key math classes as well.

“It also helps students to graduate on time and with less debt,” adds Anderson.

Beyond its innovative student programs, Student Success showcases the strategies of the most effective teachers across the country. Earlier this month, the group sponsored its third annual Student Success Conference on campus, honoring the 2012 U.S. professors of the year.  Among this year’s winners were a chemistry professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf who combines an innovative use of visual aids and instruction, delivered simultaneously in speech and sign language.  Also feted was USF’s own Autar Kaw, an engineering professor who utilizes technology to continue teaching students outside the classroom, answering questions on his blog and Twitter account, while posting supplemental lecture videos on YouTube.

“I have a flipped classroom. By flipped it means letting the students watch lecture videos at home or in the dorm. Then they come to the classroom to discuss it,” says Kaw.  “It is in the classroom where you do the higher order thinking.”

The Student Success Conference’s purpose however, is not to highlight the most brilliant teachers but to share their methods and get them emulated on a larger scale. With its on-campus partner organization, The Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence, the Office of Student Success has fostered instructor development through Faculty Learning Communities. An interactive, yearlong program, the communities bring together professors who learn how to develop and implement new classroom techniques, with focuses ranging from service learning to deploying technology in the classroom in creative ways.

College students can avail themselves of a similar environment through Living Learning Communities, on-campus housing with an academic focus (business, pre-nursing, engineering, etc.) where students live alongside like-minded classmates and sometimes, even professors, who reside in the halls with their families, serving as teachers and role models. Other faculty participate by visiting the learning communities on a regular basis, serving as mentors, engaging with students outside the classroom.

Innovative as these specialized programs are, they remain limited to a smaller cohort of students and professors.  Through its other policy initiatives implemented system-wide, the Office of Student Success has helped create a larger culture of sustained college success. For example, Anderson says they were integral to keeping the library open 24 hours a day during weekdays, hiring 45 new academic advisors and robustly expanding on-campus student employment.

Not all colleges and universities have such coordinated student success efforts, though similar movements are increasing in number. With all the recent focus on getting a greater proportion of high school students ready for college through streamlined financial aid, mentoring and a more challenging curriculum, the USF Office of Student Success is a reminder that all that is for naught if students do not experience new learning models and technology designed to boost their success.

Their work is a reminder that the college-going culture fostered by groups who work with high school students must be met by institutional change from the colleges and universities receiving these young graduates. Mentors and financial aid counselors play a vital role in getting students to college but only forward-looking university policies and a collective college teaching culture that values student success will get them to graduation in a timely and meaningful fashion.

“We want to ensure that every student who enters USF has the opportunity to succeed,” Anderson says.

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