University of South Florida


Personalized Approach Helps Students Cross the Finish Line

By Sandra C. Roa, University Communications and Marketing  

Silina Lee had just about every life challenge this past year. She moved back to Tampa from New York with her six-year-old daughter to be with her dying mother, went through a divorce, experienced homelessness and was unemployed.

“I was having a hard time concentrating. I didn’t even have a place to sit and do homework,” said Lee, who just received her master’s degree in cybercrime from the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences

At one point, Lee was in a car accident and left her laptop in the wrecked vehicle meaning she couldn’t hand her assignments in on time. Determined to graduate, she turned to USF’s vast resource system for support.

Lee qualified for a $500 grant administered by the Office of Financial Aid. She immediately used the money toward a deposit on a one-bedroom apartment. This gave Lee and her child much needed security. She had served four years in the military as a Marine and worked closely with the Office of Veterans Success to coordinate additional financial aid. The help was the first step to keeping Lee on track of meeting her career goals of fighting cyber criminals.

Silina Lee with her six-year-old daugther

From the moment Lee began her application process, to the beginning of her semester and throughout her year-long study, staff, specialists and faculty stepped in to ensure her graduation goals were completed on time. She is one of almost 5,000 students to have just received their diploma. Graduation is a pivotal event for all students. The ceremonies not only mark the successful completion of what is sometimes very intense and challenging journeys, but they also stand as a point of pride for the university who employs many strategies to ensure that students have what they need to succeed.

Student success is a shared responsibility. Every department and college is linked to a plethora of university resources where staff and faculty can help alleviate the wide range of challenges that their students face. It's a system that has grown significantly since 2009. The Student Success unit functions to connect resources to students to remove barriers that threaten a timely progression to graduation.

USF’s commitment and accomplishments in student success has led to significant increases in student retention and graduation rates. First-year retention (students re-enrolling following their freshman year) rates are at the highest in its history—91 percent. USF’s six-year graduation rate is expected to reach 75 percent this month (climbing 24 points since 2010) and its four-year rate is expected to be 61 percent (a 19 point increase since 2013).

            These successes have earned USF national recognition and established the university as a model for other institutions seeking to improve these measures of student success. Earlier this year, the university received the prestigious American Council on Education (ACE)/Fidelity Award for Institutional Transformation for achieving these dramatic changes. Critical drivers behind USF’s success included the adoption of predictive analytics and case management.

Having already had some success with an internal predictive model for student retention, USF engaged with Civitas Learning in 2014 to implement a broader model to help identify students at risk for not persisting. By 2016, hundreds of data points—grades, attendance, participation, engagement—were imported into the Civitas platform from real-time student information and learning systems, such as Banner and Canvas, enabling the predictive analytics tool to identify specific students most likely to benefit from extra assistance for their academic progression.

Silina Lee, Class of 2019, poses with her regalia.

USF formed a dedicated cross-functional team called the Persistence Committee to guide action taken with the identified students and affect policy/procedure where needed for the improved success of all students. Emulating a health care case management model, academic advocates in the Office of Academic Advocacy assumed primary responsibility for triaging and managing the student cases. Acting as case managers, they reach out to students individually to assess whether there is a need for financial, academic or emotional assistance then coordinate care by tapping into a campus network of more than 200 cross-functional professionals to provide tailored support. The overall goal is to direct the right support to the right student at the right time.

Financial assistance is high on the list of factors that most challenge students, like Lee. These students are awarded grants when possible.

“A student once only needed a small grant to get an eye exam required for a driver’s license, so she could document her status as a Florida resident and get in-state tuition,” said Paul Dosal, vice president for student success. “To that student, in-state tuition meant a difference of $17,000 that she couldn’t afford. Fortunately, we were able to assist her so she could get that eye exam.”

Being able to identify and reach out to students who are at risk of falling behind is a game changer. But data alone does not affect change. Dosal attributes USF’s success to all the dedicated and caring professionals and faculty who support the case management model. Its adoption helped further a campus-wide cultural shift among faculty and staff for the benefit of all students.

Lee recalls receiving critical considerations from several areas on campus that helped her stay on track. She received extensions as needed but also individual attention on projects—even received a Saturday phone call from one of her professors who helped her understand the course material.

“I wouldn’t have been able to pass the class otherwise,” she said. “With all of the roadblocks— not death, divorce, homelessness, finances, or mental instability stopped me from graduation,” said Lee. “I just want students to know that no matter what is happening in your life, keep pushing and never stop.”

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