Higher Learning Commission

Promoting Undergraduate Student College Success by Enhancing the First Year Experience

University of Illinois at Chicago

Overview of the Quality Initiative

UIC has launched an undergraduate student success initiative whose purpose is to increase retention and graduation rates for all undergraduates. The benchmark for the initiative is to achieve an 85% first-to-second-year retention rate and a 65% six-year graduation rate, with full parity among all ethnic/racial and gender groups. Because research demonstrates that first-year performance is an important predictor of student persistence,1 the initiative targets students' first-year experience in college with the intention of bolstering academic and social support, addressing a variety of barriers to success, and instituting assessment mechanisms to ensure new policies and programs are having the desired effects.

As with this project, strategic initiatives at UIC have four stages: visioning, planning, implementation, and assessment. For large projects such as this one, the components may progress through these stages at different rates. UIC has completed the first (visioning) stage for the student success initiative and is nearly through the second (planning) stage. A small set of high priority recommendations, however, have already reached the third or implementation stage and for our Quality Initiative for the Higher Learning Commission, we have chosen four that will be carried out by individual campus units during FY 2014-15 and FY 2015-16. During this time frame, the campus will complete the planning stage and move on to implementation for the remaining recommendations, and we plan to report on that progress as well.

Relevance and Significance

As with all campus initiatives, the undergraduate student success initiative is guided by UIC's mission. UIC aims "to provide the broadest access to the highest levels of intellectual excellence" and "to provide a wide range of students with the educational opportunity only a leading research intensive university can offer." The student success initiative itself originated in one of the chancellor's overarching goals for the campus: ''to focus on our academic excellence, student access and student success," a core element of which is "to emphasize student success with a multi-year plan to improve 6- and 4-year graduation rates."

The process of developing and implementing the student success initiative follows UIC's four-stage Shared Governance Planning Cycle, each stage of which produces a document or data to inform the next stage, as depicted in this graphic:

 university of illinois at chicago

This planning cycle facilitates major organizational change at UIC and reflects both the campus's approach to governance and its method of budgeting, referred to as modified Responsibility Centered Management or RCM. This model returns most tuition revenue to the units that generate it, while allowing for reallocations to the center through an open and transparent process to establish initiatives, such as the student success initiative, which have a campus-wide scope.

The first stage of the initiative's planning cycle, referred to as "Shared Visipning," began in February 2012 with a charge by the chancellor to the Undergraduate Policy Council (UPC), a group of academic deans and university administrators responsible for developing and recommending academic policies. UPC was charged with devising an undergraduate student success plan, beginning with a vision of what success would look like. By reviewing graduation rates at peer institutions and considering their history at UIC, UPC set the goals of an 85% first-to­ second-year retention rate and a 65% six-year graduation rate, with full parity (achievement gap closure) among all ethnic/racial and gender groups. In April2012, UPC members engaged in a series of focus groups consisting of tenure-system and non-tenure-system faculty members from the nine colleges offering undergraduate programs and another series with Student Affairs staff members and UIC undergraduate students. These groups reviewed UIC's undergraduate graduation rate of 54% for the first-year cohort entering in Fall 2005 and agreed that addressing the low rate--and the even lower rates for African Americans (33%) and Hispanics (46%)--should be the priority. Focus group participants identified issues that might adversely affect graduation rates and provided suggestions about how to address them. In summer 2012, the deans of undergraduate-admitting colleges each made a presentation to UPC on one of eight areas identified as a focus for the next phase:

  • data analysis and assessment
  • targeted first-year curriculum
  • support for student learning
  • faculty engagement
  • advising
  • financing college
  • campus life
  • pre-matriculation issues

A preliminary draft of the visioning or thinking document was presented to the campus for comment in October 2012. This stage concluded with the release of The UIC Undergraduate Student Success Plan: Step 1- Re­ imagining the First-year Experience, A Conceptual Framework for Promoting Access to Excellence and Success. This document was created to present a clear and compelling case for campus-wide change in the eight specific areas listed above.

Eight corresponding task forces were formed, comprising over 200 faculty, staff, administrators, and students, and asked to consider this question: What needs to be done to improve student success at UIC?

The second stage of UIC's planning cycle, "RCM-Based Decision Making," builds from the strategic vision developed during the first stage to the elaboration of a strategic plan to realize that vision. A strategic plan includes both recommendations and decisions about who will be accountable for carrying out those recommendations and for providing necessary resources. To advance this stage of the student success initiative, the eight task forces met regularly from February through November 2013. The vice chancellor for academic affairs (who is also the provost) and the vice chancellor for student affairs charged the eight task forces to each consider the sections of the visioning document relevant to their designated focus area and to create recommendations with practical action plans for addressing the challenges, specifying that each action plan should lay out the particular steps to be taken on campus, a rationale for each recommendation, and a practical plan for accomplishing them. The task forces were also asked to delineate measurable changes that could be made immediately (within one academic year), mid-term changes that could be made within two academic years, and long-term changes that would take three or more years to accomplish. The product of this effort was the UIC Strategic Plan for Increasing Undergraduate Success: Taskforce Recommendations, released to the campus in March 2014 and containing over 100 recommendations with justifications for each one. With recommendations developed to realize a vision, the RCM-Based Decision Making stage of planning concludes with the assignment of those recommendations to individuals or units charged with implementation.

When financial resources are involved, funds usually returned to the colleges are reallocated to support implementation, in this case a recurring commitment of $1 million a year. Given the scope of the student success initiative, assignment of responsibility for implementation of various recommendations is being distributed across campus to diverse individuals and units (see #9). The "responsible parties" are accountable for the success of the third stage, "RCM Implementation." Implementing specific assigned recommendations entails each unit developing and carrying out its own action plans. Implementation of several recommendations is already underway, while decisions about which other recommendations to prioritize and fund are still under consideration at the campus level. Funding requests will go to the UPC, with the chancellor and provost making the final decisions about resource allocations.

The fourth stage of the UIC planning cycle, "Accountability for Decisions," assures accountability through evaluations based on measurable targets that represent achievement of the initiative's goals and objectives identified in the action plans. For the purposes of our Quality Initiative, measurable objectives have been developed for the short-term priority changes already identified (see #5 below); long-term goals are represented by the original retention and graduation benchmarks.

Intended Impact

This initiative will have significant impact on undergraduate student success. Specifically, it will increase the retention and graduation rates of undergraduate students and narrow or close the gaps in retention and graduation rates among racial/ethnic and gender groups, as well as the "success gap" in final GPA between majority and minority students. VIC's retention rate for new freshmen from Fall2012 to Fall 2013 was 79.8%. The rate was even lower for new African American freshmen (77.4%) and new Hispanic freshmen (76.2%). In other words, 20.2% of the new freshmen, including 22.6% of African American, and 23.8% of Hispanic students who entered as new freshmen in Fall2012 did not re-enroll in Fall 2013. The 2013 six-year graduation rate of 57% means that approximately 43% of the first-year cohort entering UIC in Fall 2007 left before completion, including 56%of African Americans and 51% of Hispanics. This QI and the student success initiative as a whole are intended to address these high attrition rates and the gaps between the overall student body and underrepresented minority students.

The initiative will also have significant impact on the university by changing the experiences of undergraduates, especially those in their first year at UIC, by strengthening the processes and resources that directly affect college success in the initiative's focus areas: first-year curriculum, support for student learning, faculty engagement, advising, financing college, campus life, pre-matriculation, and data analysis and assessment. If successful, the initiative will build strong institutional capacity for enhancing the quality of undergraduate students' college experience.

Externally, the initiative will impact the college success of undergraduate students who are enrolled in colleges and universities throughout the Chicago area. UIC is now a city leader in student success through the newly formed Chicago Collaborative for Undergraduate Success, supported by an anonymous Chicago foundation. This network consists of nearly all nonprofit colleges and universities (two- and four-year, private and public) in the Chicago area, along with nonprofit professional and community organizations and funding agencies. The Collaborative's mission is "to help create a Chicago where all young people live up to their educational potential, by raising college graduation rates." Members of the network work collaboratively using data to understand how to improve undergraduate success and share best practices to increase the first-to-second-year college retention rate. UIC's undergraduate student success initiative will be valuable to the work of the network. The Collaborative has also partnered with the mayoral initiative "Thrive Chicago," a cradle-to-career community-impact model of services designed to increase the success of all underserved youth in Chicago.

Purposes and Goals

The purpose of this initiative is to promote undergraduate student success using benchmarks of an 85% first-to­ second-year retention rate and a 65% six-year graduation rate, with full parity among all ethnic/racial and gender groups. UIC has targeted eight areas for improvement in order to reach the benchmarks and recommendations for change have been made, as discussed above. It will take several years to implement changes. For the Quality Initiative that will take place over the next two years, UIC has identified the following four objectives:

  1. Create viable, simplified four-year degree pathway plans, which would ensure that 80% of all students at each level actually have taken the courses in the pathway plans, and track yearly retention rates and graduation rates of students in each major.
  2. Institute more comprehensive use of an Early Alert System by faculty, advisors, and students, including reporting of mid-term grades for first-year and General Education courses during Week 4 of a semester, supported by a computer platform.
  3. Create a repository of student success data that would be accessible to campus for making informed decisions on changes for the first-year experience.
  4. Increase the value of new student orientation through changes such as improved facility space and technology, faculty presentations, programmatic components tailored to meet the needs of specific populations, and a post-orientation website that serves as a central resource for first-year students. In addition, UIC will complete the action plans for a new set of recommendations and initiate their implementation.
  5. Describe how the institution will evaluate progress, make adjustments, and determine what has been accomplished.

The principle of the evaluation is to ensure that the Quality Initiative meets its intended objectives and purpose. The design of the evaluation follows a logic model to examine the process, outcome, and impact of the project in fulfilling the above specific objectives.

For process evaluation, the project will investigate:

  • What activities are implemented to advance each of the specific objectives of the QI project?
  • Are activities delivered as intended?
  • Are participants being reached as intended?
  • What are participant reactions?

For outcome evaluation, the project will study:

  • To what extent are desired changes occurring/objectives met?
  • Who is benefitting/not benefitting?
  • What seems to work/not work?
  • What are unintended outcomes?

For impact evaluation, the project will determine:

  • To what extent can changes be attributed to the project activities?
  • What are the net effects?
  • What are the final consequences?
  • Is the initiative worth the resources invested in it?

At each level of the evaluation, both quantitative and qualitative data will be collected to provide a broad, in­ depth analysis of the project's progress and accomplishments. For example, the quantitative data will include the number of participants who are involved in creating the four-year degree pathway plans (process), the number of degree pathway plans that are created and the percentage of students who have taken courses according to the pathway plans (outcome), and yearly retention rates of students in each major (impact). At the same time, qualitative data will be collected from participants about the issues or problems encountered in creating the degree plans (process), satisfaction with the degree plans and areas for improvement (outcome), and a "thick" description of how the degree pathway plans help with students' commitment to college completion.

As co-leaders of the initiative, the vice provost for undergraduate affairs and the dean of students will have the primary responsibility for coordinating evaluation of the project and ensuring that indicators and data collection methodologies are appropriate to addressing questions for the three levels of evaluation. The Office of Institutional Research will assist them in collecting and analyzing the data and conduct a formative evaluation at the end of each fall semester and a summative evaluation at the end of each academic year. The formative evaluation will identify issues, problems, and strengths in the implementation of project activities and approaches to improve the project implementation. The summative evaluation will document objective and benchmark achievements, analyze project strengths and weaknesses, and identify directions and recommendations for future implementation.

Internal and External Support

Senior campus and college administrators have been involved in the student success initiative from the outset. As described above, it originated with the chancellor's charge to the Undergraduate Policy Council (UPC}-a group that includes deans from all of the undergraduate-admitting colleges--and has been overseen by the provost and the vice chancellor for student affairs. The evolution of this initiative follows UIC's Shared Governance Planning Cycle and has received input and strong support from faculty, students, staff, and administrators at each stage. Campus leadership, tenure-system and non-tenure-system faculty, students, Student Affairs staff members, and others across campus took part in the thinking stage, which identified eight target areas and produced the Student Success Plan. More than 200 faculty, staff and students participated in the planning process to produce the Task Force Recommendations.

The introduction to the Task Force Recommendation notes that the initiative "shifts a good portion of responsibility for student success to every person on campus, rather than placing all of it on students themselves. Student success is everyone's responsibility and within everyone's reach …. It is vital to the future of UIC and our core mission of educating students that every member of this campus embraces change, both small and large." The student success initiative thus represents a commitment of faculty, staff, administrators, and students to fulfilling the institution's mission. The university has committed funds, staff time (including new hires) and physical resources to developing and sustaining the structural capacity to achieve the goal of increasing retention and graduation rates (see #7 and #8 below).

A particularly strong validation of and commitment to this initiative is the campus's recent receipt of a USU­ Gates Transformation Program Grant for our student success initiative. Beginning in August 2014, the one-year $225K grant provides funding for 2.5 FTE positions in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs to assist with student success efforts: (a) a full-time professional to coordinate and track the current distribution/implementation phase of the Student Success Plan, (b) a full-time professional to take over current planning for, and begin implementation of, UIC's Transition Coaching Liaison model program (involving outreach and coordination with many nonprofits and funders in the city), and (c) a half-time graduate student or postdoctoral assistant to help with our statistical assessment of the various initiatives. Finally, UIC's QI project will also receive support from member institutions of the Chicago Collaborative for Undergraduate Success. Collaborative members will work together, using data to understand how to improve undergraduate success and sharing best practices, including the models and policies developed through the initiative, to increase the first-to­ second-year college retention and eventually six-year graduation rates.

Groups and Individuals Involved in Implementation

The provost and the vice chancellor for student affairs have leadership roles in the UIC's undergraduate student success initiative. Working with the Undergraduate Policy Council (UPC), they will receive reports on the initiative's progress and recommendations for new policies and practices and in consultation with the chancellor make final decisions on policy, budget, and facilities. The vice provost for undergraduate affairs and the dean of students (both UPC members) serve as senior operational administrators who oversee and guide the initiative's day-to-day operations and provide direct communications between operational units and the UPC regarding the initiative's progress, strengths, weaknesses, and ways for improvement.

In addition, the following groups will be directly involved in implementing activities to achieve four objectives identified above in section #5:

  • Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs (all objectives)
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (all objectives)
  • College Advisors (Objective 1)
  • Deans of the Undergraduate Degree-Granting Colleges (Objective 1)
  • Office of lnstitutional Research (Objectives 1 and 3)
  • Directors of Undergraduate Studies Council (Objectives 1 and 4)
  • Undergraduate Success Center (Objective 2)
  • Office of Student System Service (Objective 2)
  • Undergraduate Data Analysis Group (Objective 3)
  • Office of Student Development Services (Objective 4)
  • Orientation Task Force Committee (Objective 4)
  • Office oflnternational Services (Objective 4)
  • Campus Housing (Objective 4)

Committed Resources

UIC has committed a large number of existing personnel to the initiative. In addition, some new positions have been funded, including:

  • Director, Senior Advisor, 2 Advisors, and undergraduate student workers for the Undergraduate Success Center
  • Undergraduate Program Development Specialist
  • Visiting Research Assistant Professor of Psychology (student success planning and data modeling)
  • Two Faculty Fellows
  • 2.5 FTEs funded through the USU-Gates initiative to track implementation of the plan, implement the Transition Coaching Liaison model, and assist with statistical assessment of initiatives as detailed above in #6.

The chancellor has committed $1 million in recurring funds to support the initiative. The addition of reallocated/repurposed operational funds and money from other sources (grant and tuition revenue) brings the total budget to $1,196,800 for FY 2013 and $1,362,000 for FY2014. For FY 2015, $1.225 million will be available from the combined $1 million in recurring funds and the $225K Gates grant. The commitment of recurring funds at this level provides the initiative with financial sustainability.

There have been significant expenditures to support the initiative thus far, including the cost of three software systems: Early Alerts, the Banner Student Information System, and the EAB Advising Tool. The first two systems are already in use at UIC and the last one was acquired recently for a cost of about $115,000. These systems are maintained by the Office of Student System Service. In addition, the first floor of a classroom building, Stevenson Hall, was renovated to provide a home for the Undergraduate Success Center, with about $220,000 spent on construction and furniture, $12,200 for computers and equipment, and $20,500 for installation, infrastructure, phone, and miscellaneous items. This site was selected because it is a familiar and comfortable space for freshman, nearly all of whom attend freshman composition in Stevenson, which brings them to the building two to three days a week for their entire first year. UIC has committed human, financial, technological, and facility resources to developing and implementing the student success initiative. Changes and improvements in practices and resources through the initiative will help build a strong institutional capacity for continuous support of undergraduate college success.

Primary Activities and Implementation Timeline

As described above, the student success initiative has completed the first (visioning) stage of the campus strategic planning cycle. The second stage (planning, which includes developing and distributing recommendations) has been completed for our four QI objectives, which are now in the third or implementation stage, with responsibility assigned to specific units. For the remaining recommendations, the campus is now completing the second stage and will move on to the third stage during the next academic year. The fourth or accountability stage will occur concurrently. To achieve the specific objectives identified under #5 in the next two years, the following primary activities and timeline has been planned:


Fall 2014:*

Spring 2015:

Fall 2015:
Pilot & Implement

Spring 2016:
Evaluate & Expand

Degree Pathways
  1. Directors of Undergraduate Studies Council (DUSC) or associate deans, where applicable, will meet to discuss plans and procedures for creating four-year degree pathway plans, including pre-requisite requirements.
  2. Using EAB and other resources, the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) will develop methodology for tracking students’ course-taking pattern and the yearly retention rates and graduation rates of students in each major.
  1. DUSC or associate deans, where applicable, will create four-year degree pathway plans for existing degree program that meet department and college requirements. The degree plans will be updated on the department websites and in the units’ advising documents.
  2. OIR will pilot the EAB system for tracking students’ course-taking patterns and the retention and graduation rates of students in each major by race/ethnicity and gender.
  1. College advisors will pilot the degree pathway plans to provide appropriate academic advising to undergraduate students.
  2. OIR will implement use of EAB across campus to track students’ course-taking data and the retention and graduation rates of students in each major by race/ethnicity and gender.

VPUA, DUSC, and deans will review the results of the degree plan pilot and develop strategies for full implementation in Fall 2016.

Early Alert System

The Undergraduate Success Center (USC) will collaborate with the Office of Student System Service (OSSS) to analyze the pilot results of an expanded use of Early Alert System, including required reporting of mid-term grades.

Based on the results of the pilot, OSSS and USC will develop and implement new campus strategies for the expanded use of the Early Alert System, including an appropriate computer support platform.

Instructors in first-year and General Education courses, advisors, and students will use the expanded Early Alert System, including posting of mid-term grades, to make informed decisions to improve student course completion and success.

  1. Instructors in first-year and General Education courses, advisors, and students will continue to use the expanded Early Alert System, including posting of mid-term grades, to make informed decisions that improve student course completion.
  2. USC and OSSS will evaluate the benefits and areas for improvement in the expanded use of the Early Alert System.
Repository for Student Success Data OIR and the Undergraduate Data Analysis Group (UDAG) will hold regular meetings to design a plan for creating a repository of student success data, including definition of student success data.

OIR will work on creating a central repository of student success data and discuss the progress with UDAG.

OIR will make a central repository of student success data available to the campus to facilitate informed decision making.

OIR will work with UDAG to expand the data components for the central repository of student success data as the initiative moves forward.
  Summer 2014 Fall 2014 Spring 2015 Summer 2015
New Student Orientation
  1. VPUA will complete a plan for identifying faculty to make brief presentations.
  2. Orientation Task Force Committee, OIS, Student Development Services, and Campus Housing will develop population-specific information for supplementary orientation sessions.

The New Classroom Readiness Committee will work with the Office of Classroom Services to secure quality orientation spaces with up-to-date technology and sound infrastructure.

The Orientation Task Force Committee will work with Student Development Services, Orientation Leaders, faculty, and Undergraduate Student Government to coordinate and market an extended orientation experience for first-year students.

  1. Student Development Services, CIO, and Student Affairs IT will work to develop a post-orientation website for students entering as freshmen in Fall 2015.
  2. Student Development Services will work with other units to develop a series of online pre-orientation modules on topics such as computing at UIC, registering for classes, and financial aid.


1Nora, A., Barlow, L., & Crisp, G. (2005). Student persistence and degree attainment beyond the first year in college. College student retention: Formula for success, 129-153.


Institution Contact

Ranfen Li, Director of Academic Assessment

Copyright © 2019 - Higher Learning Commission

NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC highly recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but none represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

Higher Learning Commission • 230 South LaSalle Street, Suite 7-500 • Chicago, IL 60604 • info@hlcommission.org • 800.621.7440

Home | About HLC | Contact Us | Privacy Policy

YouTube graybkgrdLinkedIn graybkgdTwitter graybkgd