Higher Learning Commission

The First Year in High Gear

University of New Mexico

Overview of the Quality Initiative

The University of New Mexico (UNM) proposes a Quality Initiative called “The First Year in High Gear.” This initiative is based on UNM’s participation in the Foundations of Excellence® (FoE) First College Year Self Study, one of 11 four-year institutions participating during the 2012-13 academic year. The outcome of this significant project was an evidence-based action plan for institutional change and improvement to increase the quality of the first-year education experience at UNM over a multi-year period. UNM is currently in the first year of implementing this action plan, including outlining specific goals and determining appropriate metrics for analyzing progress and success toward each goal. It is expected that the initiatives formed out of the action plan will lead to improved retention rates for our freshman class, place students on a solid trajectory toward graduation, and demonstrate national leadership in the area of student academic success. A copy of the executive summary and recommendations from UNM’s FoE self-study report is provided as an attachment. The full self-study document can be provided upon request.

Relevance and Significance

UNM is a complex institution. It is a research university with the highest Carnegie Basic Classification for doctorate-granting universities (RU/VH – Research University with Very High Research Activity). It is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, one of only a handful of RU/VH institutions to have that designation. It also has the largest percentage of American Indian and Hispanic students enrolled of the 73 other institutions in that designation. Many students entering UNM arrive with great but untapped potential, having grown up without access to financial and other resources that have historically predicted academic success. Many are first-generation college students who come from homes where English is a second language, have significant financial challenges, and may not even have U.S. citizenship. UNM also faces challenges due to the diversity of academic preparation of its incoming students. Approximately 30% of our entering students have remedial needs. The university’s values of equity, inclusion, and access compel us to admit these students. However, admission without appropriate support is insufficient. Therefore, UNM has invested significant resources to improve student success and ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Developing and coordinating the programs that will have the highest impact on students will be guided by comprehensive data collection and analysis, including the early identification of students in need of extra support, and matching them with programs predicted to retain those students and place them on a path toward graduation. Knowing whether UNM’s programs and interventions are helping students persist and graduate will require linking a variety of outcome measures that can be collected and reported every semester, to longer-term outcomes, such as graduation. Those measures, called Key Performance Indicators, will guide decisions regarding programs, interventions, and resources. The design of these programs and interventions have been, and will continue to be guided by nationally-known and recommended best practices; driven by creative solutions offered by faculty, staff, and students with intimate knowledge of UNM; informed by the years of experience of UNM’s leadership team; and adapted to UNM’s particular student demographics.

Intended Impact

The University of New Mexico has recently adopted a new strategic plan titled UNM 2020 (http://unm2020.unm.edu/index.html). The UNM 2020 strategic plan includes seven overarching goals. One of those goals is to "Prepare Lobos for Lifelong Success." Two objectives within that goal are to "Improve retention rates to 80% by 2Q15" and "Improve graduation rates to 50% by 2Q15." Implementing the Foundations of Excellence initiative is included as a tactic for meeting both of those goals. Other objectives listed in UNM 2020 that will be met, in part, by FoE initiatives include: “Fully implement an Honors College;” “Develop a plan to give students a 'compelling case to be on campus’;” and “Create opportunities to serve local, state, regional, national and global communities.”

As part of the Foundations of Excellence self study process, a Philosophy Statement for the First Year was developed and adopted by the campus:

As this state’s flagship research university serving a highly diverse student body, the University of New Mexico is committed to offering a high-quality education marked by a challenging and supportive environment that provides all students with the foundation for academic and personal success in the first year and beyond.

During the initial implementation phase of the action plan, UNM has begun to outline key initiatives and projects to improve retention rates for freshman, place students on a solid trajectory toward graduation, and demonstrate leadership in the area of student academic success. Some specific examples of efforts that have already begun include improving new student orientation, working with the Faculty Senate to reduce the minimum credit hours for an undergraduate degree required by the institution from 128 to 120, restructuring advising to better serve freshman students, and improving communications to students. These and other efforts are outlined in section 4.

Purposes and Goals

In connection with UNM 2020, the FoE project also has a general goal of “Preparing Lobos for Lifelong Success.” Connected with that overarching goal are two more specific objectives: increasing the rate of student retention to the third semester, and increasing the six-year graduation rate.

The John N. Gardner Institute (Gardner Institute from here on) insists on the importance of striving for a quality academic experience, on beginning the FoE project as a matter of social justice, and that increases to retention and graduation rates will follow. In accordance with that principle, the self-study generated a plan of action aiming to increase the quality of the first-year experience, along the lines of the philosophy statement provided above. Assessment of these efforts, however, will include metrics such as retention, graduation, and other measures not explicitly included in the UNM 2020 strategic plan (please refer to Section 5 for more details on evaluating and measuring these efforts).

The action plan generated during the year-long self-study process includes over 30 individual projects organized under six areas. Some of those projects are the responsibility of offices, colleges, or other academic units on campus, and are then reported to the First Year Steering Committee (FYSC) for coordination. Other projects have been delegated to subcommittees of the FYSC, which were created specifically to manage them. The six areas and description of corresponding projects are listed below:

  1. Student Transitions to UNM
    Projects in this area include improvements to recruiting, changes to introductory studies courses (UNM’s remedial courses), and student placement. Regarding the introductory studies courses, the non-credit Introductory Studies English (ISE) will be completely replaced by innovative credit-bearing English Stretch and Studio courses beginning in the fall semester of 2014. A similar program to address intermediate algebra has shown positive early results. Both programs are addressing transitional courses for first-year students that have traditionally been barriers to progress. Finding innovative approaches to curricula redesign for these courses are expected to positively impact retention, graduation, and efficiency. Also, the FYSC created two subcommittees to take on two urgent projects: a redesign of New Student Orientation, which will take effect this summer (2014), and a review and improvement process for all communication to first-year students, particularly for the period between admission and the third-semester. These programs will ensure that students receive clear information about the academic expectations of college and help them to avoid unnecessary difficulties arranging financial aid, housing, and other services.
  2. Curriculum
    Projects in this area include an initiative to streamline curriculum and provide “road maps” for each degree program, which have proven to be useful for incoming students choosing a major area of studies and has also resulted in the development of the degrees.unm.edu website; an increase in the number of Freshman Learning Communities, which link a core class with a small seminar; and development of first-year seminars and career exploration courses. We are also developing a tool that shows students how UNM’s Core Curriculum supports and develops essential skills that are valued by employers. While we are still in the process of discovering which of our many courses, programs, and other interventions are really high-impact, the Freshman Learning Communities (FLC) is one such program in which data has already been collected and analyzed to determine impact. The analysis has shown that participation in an FLC leads to a higher retention rate, higher earned GPA, and an increased rate of matriculation to a degree-granting college in fewer semesters.
  3. Student Support
    Several efforts to improve student support services have been identified. These include initiatives to simplify access to resources including a physical one-stop student support center, which had its ribbon cutting in September 2013, and the creation of a students.unm.edu website, which is currently under development. University advisement is currently undergoing reorganization to a major-centric model to lower student-advisor ratios in University College, which houses 95 percent of freshman students, and improve advising quality. In addition, an early alert system was implemented in August 2013 as part of the LoboAchieve advising system. Widespread adoption of the early alert system will allow for the identification of students in need of extra support at the first sign of distress, a time when programs and interventions are likely to be the most effective at helping them overcome early obstacles. In turn, it is expected that the early alerts system will contribute overall to keeping students at UNM and placing them on a successful path to graduation.
  4. Faculty and Staff Support
    Efforts to improve faculty and staff support include the creation of a Center for Teaching Excellence, which will provide workshops and resources specific to teaching first-year students, scholarship opportunities in the area of teaching and learning, and a teaching certificate for graduate students, many of whom teach first-year courses. The FYSC is also working on ways to reward excellent teaching in first-year courses, and decrease the proportion of first-year courses taught by temporary part-time faculty. While the goal will be to provide development opportunities and easy-to-utilize demographic data to all instructors of first-year courses, there are also specific efforts to focus on and improve pedagogy in high failure-rate courses.
  5. Out-of-Classroom Experiences
    To enhance out-of-classroom experiences, UNM’s Residence Life and Student Housing has created themed residence floors (engineering, honors college, etc.). In addition, a program has been started to recognize student-learning outcomes in extra-curricular activities and reward students who participate in them. Those learning outcomes are based on the essential skills that employers look for in prospective employees. Every out-of-classroom experience at UNM will be linked with the skills provided by that experience. In addition to quantifying the skills learned in those experiences, students will be able to get a transcript that lists gained essential skills and be able to provide that information to potential employers when searching for a job or to graduate/professional programs when applying for advanced studies.
  6. Data and Assessment
    This area will be focused on developing metrics and the evaluation mechanisms for the projects as well as identifying and measuring the high-impact practices at UNM. More information is provided in Section 5.

Evaluation of Progress and Accomplishments

Great care will be taken to make sure that the project tracking of the FoE effort is aligned with the tracking for UNM 2020, and that the individual FoE Action Items are aligned with the goals and objectives of UNM 2020. The First Year Steering Committee co-chairs and program coordinator actively work with the Director of Strategic Projects in the Office of the President to ensure integration of the Foundations of Excellence project with the UNM 2020 strategic plan.

In addition, one of the six areas identified in the FoE Project is Data and Assessment. The FYSC has formed a Data and Assessment subcommittee, which is charged with the following tasks:

  1. To design a system to help UNM identify and understand which first-year engagements are most connected to student achievement, and disseminate recommendations and findings to University leaders, academic units, and other stakeholders;
  2. To establish a first-year experience student achievement dashboard; and
  3. To assess the FYSC on their performance in improving the first year experience.

As part of the assessment process, the leaders for each FoE project have aligned their project goals with the first year philosophy statement (outlined in Section 3) and will be tracking the completion and effectiveness of each “tactic” undertaken to accomplish their project goals. Additionally, every program or department that has substantial contact with first-year students will be asked to supply, to our Data and Assessment group, data on student participation and level of student engagement.

Assessment of the more general outcome measures for the FoE project will be the responsibility of the Data and Assessment subcommittee. At the base of the outcomes measures is the impact on overall graduation rates. The subcommittee will look at historical correlations between graduation and shorter-term outcomes that can be measured on a semester basis, including factors such as retention, average cumulative GPA of first-time freshmen in core courses during various semesters, student course withdrawals, the number of first-time freshmen who lose their UNM or lottery scholarships, progress to degree, among others. These measures will also be analyzed by various student subpopulations such as traditionally under-represented, academically at-risk, low-income, first-generation, and those from rural communities. The short-term measures with the strongest correlations to graduation will be identified as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The KPIs will allow for measurement of the impact of UNM’s FoE projects and interventions, along with all other university programs and interventions that impact first-year students, and for building prediction models to determine impact on graduation. In short, the assessment will provide UNM with a better sense for how successful our first-year efforts have been, along with information collected regularly which will allow us to make changes as needed.

Internal and External Support

As previously noted in earlier sections, improving the freshman experience and providing opportunities for all students to succeed and graduate is a key priority for UNM. Many of the actions are designed to support and integrate with specific goals outlined in the university’s most recent strategic planning efforts led by President Robert Frank. The project has direct support from the President and the Provost.

To date, the creation of the self-study and the development of action plans and projects have involved over 200 faculty, staff, students and administrators representing a variety of departments and offices from student affairs, academic affairs, and academic units. Many of the projects require cross-campus collaboration, such as the New Student Orientation redesign. UNM has already created several centers including the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Student Success Center as a direct result of the FoE project. Faculty and Administrators have already worked on policy changes (for example, the reduction of the minimum credit hour requirement) and curricular changes (replacing Introductory Studies English with an English 101 Stretch and Studio course).

In addition, the State of New Mexico has recently adopted a new funding formula for higher education. Rewarding institutions for their outcomes rather than costs, the formula specifically encourages institutions to close the achievement gap and to graduate more students.

Groups and Individuals Involved in Implementation

Provost Chaouki Abdallah has appointed a First Year Steering Committee (FYSC) charged with the responsibility for implementing the recommendations developed during the FoE self-study, as found in the FoE Final Report and Action Plan. The committee will coordinate, assess, and manage improvements for all first-year programs. The committee will inform funding of all first-year initiatives and review all proposals for first-year programming to ensure promising practices are featured and that resources are used efficiently and effectively in concert with programs that serve students beyond the first year. The members of the FYSC include:

  • Greg Heileman, Associate Provost for Curriculum
  • Kate Krause, Dean of University College and Honors College
  • Terry Babbitt, Associate Vice President, Enrollment Management
  • Diane Marshall, Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences
  • Amy Neel, Associate Professor, Speech and Hearing Sciences
  • Tim Gutierrez, Associate Vice President, Student Services
  • Tomas Aguirre, Dean of Students
  • Vanessa Harris, Director, University Advisement Center
  • Jennifer Gomez-Chavez, Director, Student Academic Success Office
  • Joe Suilmann, Program Coordinator, Office of the Provost

Committed Resources

The FoE Task Force that generated the initial self-study consisted of over 200 members of the UNM community, including faculty, staff, administrators, and students. A staff member in the Provost’s Office has been assigned to manage and coordinate the FoE initiatives. Many members of that dedicated group have already begun acting on the recommendations, and creating an extensive and coordinated plan for improving the first-year experience. For the implementation phase, the FYSC will be working with many of the same individuals who participated in the self-study to accomplish the goals and objectives of the action plan. While it is difficult to quantify the investment of these human resources in monetary value, the amount of time and workload effort that has already been dedicated to the task force, committees, and projects has been significant.

The university has invested $70,500 for the self-study and implementation phases as part of the FoE. Both of those phases included access to the Gardner Institute’s software platforms for managing the project. The university has hosted several Student Success Summits and has brought in consultants, such as George Kuh and the Gardner Institute Advisor to UNM, Andrew Koch, to help develop the self-study and plan for implementation. The university is currently using the FoE implement website to track and manage the project. The current total investment for the Summits and consultants is approximately $45,000.

In addition, the FYSC is helping to identify areas of collaboration or working with areas on particular resource needs (whether human, financial, technological, or otherwise). For example, the committee was able to ensure that state-of-the-art “flipped” classrooms were made available for orientation sessions as part of the redesigned New Student Orientation.

Other recent investments linked to UNM’s student success and FoE initiatives include:

  • A new Student Success Center in Mesa Vita Hall ($500,000)
  • An Academic Coaching Program ($70,000 for training/certification and staffing, in addition to the time donated by 77 faculty, staff, administrators, and students who have volunteered as academic coaches to date)
  • A new advising system, LoboAchieve (initial investment is $278,000 over three years, in addition to a number of staff who support, maintain, and provide training on the system as part of their overall job responsibilities)
  • New advisor positions for University College ($180,000)
  • Freshman Learning Communities ($1,000,000)
  • Lobo Reading Experience ($10,000)
  • A new website dedicated to providing student information in one location: students.unm.edu ($24,000)

Primary Activities and Implementation Timeline

FoE Phase Major Milestones Date
  • Creation of a First Year Mission Statement
  • Nine Dimension Committee reports
  • The Self-Study Final Report and Action Plan

September 2012 – March 2013

March 2013 – July 2013

Implementation – Year 1
  • New Student Orientation Redesign
  • Assessment Plan development
  • Degree Maps website launched
  • Introductory Studies replacement
  • 120 student credit-hour minimum for baccalaureate degrees
  • Expanding Freshman Learning Communities
  • Student Success Center ribbon-cutting
  • Creation of Center for Teaching Excellence
  • Research Match website launched
  • Early Alert system in LoboAchieve advising portal
August 2013 – May 2014
Implementation – Year 2
  • High-Impact Practices data
  • First-Year Experience Dashboard
  • Graduate Student College Teaching certificate
  • Rewarding excellent teaching in first-year classrooms
  • Community engagement and service learning
  • First-year communication model

June 2014 –
May 2015

  • Creating a full-time position on the first year
  • Assessment and continual improvement model for first-year experience
  • Implementation of high-impact practice matching system
June 2015 - Ongoing





Institution Contact

Joseph Suilmann, Communication and Outreach Specialist, Office of the Provost

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