Clearing the Way
New programs aim to help students avoid pitfalls
By Justin Velasco
From finding a seat in that all-important prerequisite class to dealing with homesickness, college has long been a trying time for many students, and by some measures it’s getting even more challenging.
“It’s tougher in many ways,” says Cal Poly Pomona Provost Marten denBoer. “When I was going to school [in the 1960s and 1970s], the courses were somehow more prescribed, and there was a lot less going on in my life. Because the tuition was paid for, I didn’t have to work off campus when I was in school.”
Classes were also smaller, giving students more one-on-one interaction with their professors; and high schools, which were better funded then, did more to prepare their students for college, denBoer says.
The new reality is that students face more hurdles when they walk onto a college campus these days. Because of that, Cal Poly Pomona has begun a series of programs designed to simplify their academic lives and smooth the pathway to graduation.
From extra advising and additional student housing to sophisticated computer systems that identify signs of academic adversity, Cal Poly Pomona is making major strides to ensure student success.
Those efforts are showing promising results. Since 2011, the university has seen its freshman-to-sophomore retention rates rise by 3 percentage points a year to almost 90 percent today.
The Graduation Initiative, a multi-pronged approach to the challenges that today’s students face, is a CSU-wide initiative that each university applies to its own circumstances.
“California has a need for more college graduates,” denBoer says. “By some estimates, the state will be short 1 million new college graduates by 2025, and we can — we must — help fill that need. We’ve identified some of the hurdles students face, and the Graduation Initiative aims to address those challenges.”
One of the approaches is targeting “bottleneck courses” — classes that tend to trip students up and delay their progress.
“That typically has been a class with a high failure ratio; it’s just a difficult class,” says Victor
Okhuysen, faculty coordinator of the Graduation Initiative Steering Committee.
Make no mistake: The university will not water down these classes just to facilitate a higher pass rate. Instead, it is shifting extra resources toward them, identifying and testing ways to augment learning and improve results, Okhuysen says. Already, websites providing supplemental materials and visuals have been established for some of the courses, a development made possible through a grant from the Kellogg Legacy Project Endowment, a multimillion-dollar investment in the future from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s $42 million gift.
“The feedback from the students is that it really helps,” Okhuysen says.
Another part of the initiative calls for the university to offer more advising and tutoring to help keep students on track. The Learning Resource Center now provides students with a one-stop shop for tutoring and writing assistance. The convenience means more students are making use of the services it offers.
The university is also developing an “early alert” system to detect those who might be experiencing academic difficulties. For example, a single D or F might not be a big problem for some students, but it could be a troubling sign for others because of their background or living circumstances. “No matter how brilliant an at-risk student is, if they run into difficulties they won’t know where to turn,” Okhuysen says.
Cal Poly Pomona is also planning to build more campus housing, because studies show that students who live on campus tend to be more involved in the university community, and those who are involved tend to perform better in the classroom.
Another way the university is helping students connect with their peers is by studying learning communities —student groups that take classes together and study together as they move through their curriculum. It’s a program that’s being made possible through a grant from the Kellogg Legacy Project Endowment. Students might be organized into groups based on whether they live together in a residence hall, share a major or have similar passions, such as environmentalism.
“You develop a cohort of students with a common interest,” Okhuysen says. “That helps build a sense of community.”
The university has also unveiled My Bronco Activity Record (MyBAR), an online tool that allows students to organize and track their co-curricular activities. It also serves as a powerful resource for advisors.
“We saw that the potential there is huge for promoting engagement, which is one of the pillars of student success,” Okhuysen says. “As advisors, we can see if a student is under- or over-engaged.”
The university is harnessing the power of student data through its new Data Dashboard system, which allows administrators, faculty and staff to easily access and comb through statistics about groups of students. Previously, requests for many types of data had to be tabulated by hand, a cumbersome process that often took weeks or was impractical and went unfilled.
Okhuysen says the Data Dashboard allows analysis of specific groups of students. The system would, for example, allow the university to track the progress of female engineering students, a cohort that has been historically underrepresented in the field.
Taken together, all of these measures make for an ambitious program, but with the recent approval of the Student Success Fee, Cal Poly Pomona is well positioned to move forward. The fee, which was approved by 71 percent of the students who voted on it, will provide additional funding for academic support, student engagement and information technology programs.
There’s still a long way to go, but Okhuysen says the university and its students are on the right path.
“The first couple years of the Graduation Initiative were foundational, but bigger things are yet to come.”