Highly Valued Degree Initiative

Highly Valued Degree Initiative

Student Success, Graduation Rates, Closing Achievement Gaps
  • Graduation Rates
California State University Long Beach (CA)

In addition to the posted link on the CSULB web site, which will likely not last forever, this work has been described in the Winter 2015 edition of Public Purpose, the publication of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and in a Spring 2016 issue of Change Magazine.

Large, very diverse, urban, public, comprehensive, Master's university in southern California

  • Institutions
  • Systems


Student success and degree completion with first generation, underrepresented universities in large, public, poorly funded universities.

  • Improving retention and completion overall and for all student ethnic, gender, income, and major subgroups

  • Reduce achievement gaps between underrepresented students and others

  • Maintain and improve degree quality.


California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) received the 2014 national award from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) for Excellence and Innovation in Student Success and Completion, recognizing record high graduation rates, significantly above comparable institutions. To achieve gains, CSULB implemented a full range of institution-changing strategies, not just a few student success measures. Gains occurred with cohorts that entered during major budget cuts, benefitted all ethnic and gender groups, and low-income students, and occurred with cohorts that were far more diverse and far more low-income compared to earlier cohorts. With a national conversation asking why sizable student success gains are elusive, especially for underrepresented students, the CSULB experience suggests a key reason: improvement requires changing many aspects of the institution, not just a few, and this can be difficult.

HVDI utilized a broad set of strategies to accomplish gains. Some were typical: learning communities, advising, tutoring. Others were less commonly discussed in connection with student success: strategic planning, budget planning and enrollment management. The keys were a collaborative, all-institution approach; a sustained, unwavering focus; and strong and committed leadership.

Planning: HVDI utilized the existing annual strategic planning process to establish campus goals for degree completion. Discussions created a venue within which efforts of Academic Affairs could link with Student Affairs and with Administration and Finance (which housed Enrollment Services). Student success eventually became a super-ordinate goal for all divisions, which was a useful way to resolve differences between vice presidents about resource allocation.

Communication: Prior to 2005, student success was rarely a topic of conversation among CSULB leaders. As student success became a super-ordinate goal, success language began to make frequent appearances in campus communications from presidents, provosts, and other campus leaders. Three successive presidents used signature slogans (“I have three priorities: students, students, students;” “Graduation Begins Today;” “We know our mission; it is student success”) that helped maintain focus.

Organization: An institution-wide HVDI Steering Committee was formed with representatives from each academic college and from five task forces on Advising, Student Support, Faculty Development, Curriculum, and Research. The Steering Committee met and continues to meet every other week in order to sustain focus. Over time, the sophistication of analysis and discussion rose dramatically.

Data: Use of data was an HVDI hallmark. A dashboard was developed to break out data by departments, ethnic groups, gender groups, and academic preparation. A “native junior” metric associated continuing students with respective academic colleges at the end of the third cohort year after choice of majors was sorted out. Six-year graduation rate goals were assigned to each academic college for underrepresented native juniors, other native juniors, underrepresented transfer students and other transfer students. Progress was tracked closely and frequently discussed with deans. Data contrasting underrepresented and non-underrepresented students revealed almost no achievement gap for transfer students but significant gaps for native students.

Budget: In the early 2000s, significant tensions existed between academic and administrative divisional vice presidents over funding instruction. Eventually the matter was resolved with a practice of fully funding the schedule of classes first in the budget every year. This made it possible for the academic division to tell deans that any class with adequate student demand would be funded, a sea change from the campus attitude of the 1990s. This made a huge difference in eliminating budget-based course bottlenecks that delayed progress to the degree, especially during the Great Recession.

Innovation: In 2006, the academic division carved out funding to support efforts to innovate for student success, with the amount eventually reaching $1 million. Funds were distributed annually based on proposals from colleges and task forces. With the Great Recession, this entire budget was lost, but a portion was replaced by a new Student Excellence Fee, and the campus continues supporting innovation efforts.

Advising: Decentralized and neglected prior to 2005, the academic division launched efforts to coordinate practices across the many units that provided advising services. Mandatory orientations and advising milestones were instituted. Colleges developed advising plans to reach each major, and college advising centers were created. The campus shifted from mainly faculty to mainly staff advising as it became clear that curricular complexities required professional advisors. During the Great Recession, a majority of the Student Excellence Fee was prioritized to protect and even add advising positions despite the severe budget challenges. The campus embraced technology in advising with advisor-facing and student-facing self-service degree audits and degree planners. More recently, the campus rolled out predictive analytics with the view that e-advising does not reduce the need for human advisors, but makes face-to-face advising more productive.

Support services: Student services formed another key element in HVDI. The research literature suggests that best practice requires a solid array of services for all students plus an array of programs for specific needs (Schuh, et al., 2010). The campus moved key advising and learning assistance programs from an obscure location to one adjacent to the flow of pedestrian student traffic and usage dramatically increased. The campus increased investments in supplemental instruction, learning assistance, and tutoring. Academic and Student Affairs partnered to develop learning communities aimed at freshmen who arrived with college preparatory needs. The campus strengthened investments in services for disabled students. Academic and Student Affairs partnered to launch a “Men’s Success Initiative” initially aimed at African American men and later expanded to include Latino males. The campus has long supported centers for several student ethnic groups and for LGBTQ. Most recently the campus has launched a center to support undocumented students.

Enrollment management: In a large, comprehensive university, the task of providing all classes needed by students to make progress to degree is challenging. The academic division partnered with Administration and Finance (which housed Enrollment Services) and Student Affairs (which housed student recruitment) to develop proactive enrollment management from pre-entry to graduation, with key responsibilities assigned to college associate deans. Coupled with the budget commitments, proactive enrollment management helped tremendously with student progress to degree.

Curriculum: At CSULB prior to HVDI, average time to degree and average units to degree were well beyond national standards of four years and 120 semester units. General Education (GE) is famously a battleground in many institutions as departments perceive that maintaining enrollments thorough GE requirements brings resources. Rethinking these issues sometimes led to curriculum battles. At one point, it became clear that a second and atypical GE lab-life-science requirement was standing in the way of graduation for non-science majors and simply could not be delivered due to the lack of labs and instructors--but not because of funding, which was guaranteed. This led to a spirited disagreement and eventually to a Senate action to change the requirement. Similarly, some major requirements had arisen by accretion over years without much consideration of timely student progress, and some majors contained “hidden” prerequisites. Efforts to streamline curricula were undertaken and almost all majors were reduced to 120 nominal semester units (including electives and GE), including the College of Engineering.

Pedagogy: The campus expanded support for high impact practices such as internships, study abroad, and undergraduate research. An online learning community for STEM faculty was created to share pedagogical ideas. Faculty teams came together to redesign low completion rate courses, informed by research demonstrating the superiority of active learning. One dedicated professor made strenuous efforts to improve outcomes for an Anatomy and Physiology course; over several years, she experimented with digital and face-to-face innovations and eventually produced dramatic improvements. The Physics and Chemistry departments invested similar effort with positive results, and a few other teams achieved improvements. However, dramatic gains with pedagogy were not always easily attained. Some results were flat and some teams could not work together. Recently, CSULB decided to invest in flipped and hybrid courses, partly because of evidence that these modes can lead to greater learning but also because the technology can engage faculty in course redesign efforts.

Tenure-track hiring: After the Great Recession, tenure track hiring increased. To become intentional about linking hiring with student success, the campus revised practices. Every dean now meets with every convening hiring committee to discuss how faculty will be selected who will be well-prepared to teach CSULB students. Each candidate must provide a “Student Success Statement” describing how he or she is prepared to teach diverse students. Committee hiring recommendations must be justified in part by success statements. These changes have sent a message about faculty hiring priorities.

Long Beach College Promise Partnership: The city of Long Beach is one of the most diverse in the U.S. CSULB had long been part of a partnership with the local community college and the public school system, centered on a local admission guarantee. As a high-demand campus, it would have been easy for CSULB to become selective; however, because of the partnership, local access was protected, and CSULB has become even more diverse, enrolling even more Pell students while entering SAT scores remain nearly flat. Gains in completion made by CSULB have little to do with selectivity. In 2015, the Long Beach College Promise Partnership won a $5 million California Governor’s Innovation award in part because of success in completion rates recognized by the AASCU award.

In Sum: None of the strategies employed at CSULB were especially innovative in isolation. What was relatively distinctive was the orchestration of strategies sustained over a decade with an unwavering focus. Make no mistake: it was and is difficult to keep the focus of an entire institution for a decade. Staying the course requires strong and committed leadership.

  • Graduation rates

  • Achievement gaps

Graduation rates rose 14% (53% to 67%) in five years. Achievement gaps closed from 12% to 8% in five years. Graduation rates rose 41% (26% to 67%) in 15 years. All ethnic and gender groups benefited from these gains. Low income and "remedial" students benefited.

Over 6,000 students graduated in the past decade who would not have graduated at earlier,lower campus graduation rates.


Leadership was the key ingredient along with a whole institution approach. It was necessary to prioritize resources to support students -- especially schedule of classes, advisors, and support programs -- in order to achieve gains. However, gains occurred during the worst budget crisis in the history of California higher education, the "Great Recession" of 2007-10. There was no large infusion of resources that made this possible; rather it required a disciplined prioritization of budget.

  • Prioritizing costs of instruction off the top of the university budget each year

  • Prioritizing costs of expanding advisors even during a recession and budget cuts

  • Prioritizing costs of adding supplemental instruction and tutoring even during a recession and budget cuts

  • Student success requires a whole institution approach.

  • There is no magic bullet. A student’s path through a large university is complex with many potential roadblocks. Isolated interventions may not be effective.

  • Some important strategies are often overlooked: leadership, budgetary commitment, enrollment management, curricular streamlining, tenure track hiring, and data capabilities. Without these success efforts will only be marginally effective.

  • Without data, it is nearly impossible to have productive conversations about student success. With data, it becomes harder to deny that problems exist. Data demonstrating achievement gaps will often lead to consensus more quickly.

  • Managing a large university to optimize success requires a skilled, collaborative, responsive leadership and managerial team.

  • Leadership is critical.

  • Faculty are at the heart of any university but sometimes have perspectives limited by respective disciplines and so university-wide leadership is often necessary to move a campus toward student success.

  • Collaboration is essential. Breaking out of the-too many and too-familiar silos is needed to move forward.

  • Sustained, unwavering focus requires strong and committed leadership.

Further innovations are planned. A student success center will open. E-advising and predictive analytics will become pervasive as well as deeper uses of data. Digital learning and high impact practices will be expanded. First-year experiences will be changed and improved while graduate programs will be reinvigorated.


David Dowell
California State University Long Beach
Long Beach, California 90840
Phone: 562-985-4128


David Dowell
California State University Long Beach
Phone: 562-985-4128