diverse students throwing mortarboards in the air as they graduate Photo by iStock/Prostock-Studio

Improving Outcomes for All Students

Campuswide self-studies at Capital University lead to changes inside and outside the classroom—and measurably improved rates of student success.

At Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, our institutional promise to students and their families is that we will ensure that all students have the academic support, campus services, and close mentorship they need to realize their educational goals. In 2009, as the result of a universitywide strategic planning process, we made a commitment to identify and remove barriers to student success with the goal of improving first-to-second-year retention and graduation rates. While the economic incentive for student success was compelling, the moral imperative to keep our promise was paramount.

To gain the expertise we needed to meet this goal, the university participated in a series of nationally recognized campuswide self-studies sponsored by the Gardner Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing institutional responsibility for improving learning outcomes. These studies included Foundations of Excellence (FOE) First Year, which we undertook in 2012; Gateways to Completion (G2C), launched in 2016; and FOE Transfer, launched in 2019.

Hundreds of faculty, staff, and students across all divisions of the university engaged in comprehensive, evidence-driven evaluations of institutional performance in areas known to be predictive of first-year, gateway course, and transfer student success. As we implemented changes based on these evaluations, we began to see measurable improvements in learning outcomes.

Examining the Gateways

The FOE First Year self-study yielded more than 100 recommendations for improving the student experience. The school selected nine to act upon immediately, including publishing a first-year philosophy statement and establishing a dean of engagement and success to centralize responsibilities for first-year students into a single highly integrated office. We also adopted a recommendation to develop programming across several areas. These courses were designed to help students cultivate their financial literacy and their awareness of financial aid resources; to give them an understanding of the purpose and value of higher education; to clarify what would be expected of them in a university setting; and to help them achieve academic success, which was especially important for first-generation students and their families.

Five years after the launch of the FOE First Year self-study, we had implemented nearly all action items. In the fall of 2017, we achieved a 19-year high in first-to-second-year retention (78.1 percent)—and we repeated that high retention rate in the following two years.

But we were still finding it difficult to make improvements in one key area we had identified: “gateway” courses that students typically take during their first two years. During the Gateways to Completion process, we began a close examination of student success in these prerequisite and introductory courses, which tend to be high-enrollment and high-risk. They’re often considered “weed out” courses because so many students fail them or do so poorly that they stop progressing and do not complete their degrees.

Based on evidence from the Gardner Institute, as well as observations of our own students, we determined that Pell-eligible, first-generation, and underrepresented student populations were the ones most likely to receive grades of D, F, Withdrawal, or Incomplete (DFWI) in these classes. For this reason, we felt an ethical imperative to improve student outcomes in such courses. We also were familiar with the evidence suggesting that, in gateway courses, interventions designed for underrepresented students improved the performance of all students.

While 16.1 percent of white students in gateway courses performed poorly or dropped out, among Black students that number rose to 26.7 percent. Multiracial students fared the worst at 30.8 percent.

We selected three gateway classes, including Introduction to Business (BUS 101), for our self-study. At Capital, our business programs are direct-entry and available to all students who meet the university’s admission requirements. Therefore, students in BUS 101 come from diverse backgrounds in terms of academic preparation, financial need, and family history with higher education.

The committee we assembled to study BUS 101 included the business dean; full- and part-time faculty; PhD and clinically qualified faculty teaching BUS 101 or a subsequent course; and the director of academic success, who is responsible for peer tutoring, academic coaching, and the writing center. The committee also included the university’s head football coach, because a significant percentage of Capital’s business majors are student-athletes.

The Gardner Institute has identified six Gateway to Completion Principles as vital to student success in gateway courses. Committee members used these principles to examine course-specific evidence on key performance indicators among students in the class. We found that DFWI rates for BUS 101 varied greatly by student type. (See "DFWI Rates by Student Types" below.)

While 18.6 percent of all students in BUS 101 were DFWI, the percentages varied widely among groups. For instance, 16.1 percent of white students performed poorly or dropped out. Among Black students, that number rose to 26.7 percent, while multiracial students fared the worst at 30.8 percent.

DFWI Rates by Student Types

Overall 18.6 
First-year 21.1  
Non-resident immigrant 11.1 
Hispanic/Latino 27.3
Black/African American 26.7
White 16.1
Multiracial 30.8 
Race unknown 16.7  
Male 21.2 
Female   14.1
Full-time 18.3 
Part-time 28.6
Pell-eligible 25.7
Non-Pell 11.9
First generation 25
Non first generation 15.2


This was the first time the school had examined DFWI rates for the course, both overall and by student type. As the committee members examined this evidence, they engaged in discussion that was both spirited and productive. But they also expressed some skepticism. For instance, they debated whether the DFWI rate for the course was acceptable, and whether the administration was really asking to have the rigor of the course reduced. But the real question was: How could we improve outcomes?

Strategizing for Success

We had already put in significant work on BUS 101. For instance, we had created a master syllabus that would ensure common learning outcomes, we had adopted a standard textbook, and we had established some consistency in assignments. Individual faculty teaching the course still were able to add their own requirements, weight course assessments as they wished, and use different pedagogies to achieve the learning outcomes.

Faculty teaching the course were uniform in their judgment that content difficulty was not the primary cause of the DFWI grades in BUS 101. Instead, they pointed to poor attendance, failure to submit required assignments on time or at all, failure to acquire and/or adequately read the text, poor time management, and deficient college study skills.

After completing the self-study, the committee developed recommendations for universitywide initiatives, as well as pedagogical and curricular interventions. These included:

Enroll all first-semester, first-year business students in College Success Strategies. In this one-credit class, developed and taught by student development professionals, students learn about college expectations, strategies for college success, financial literacy, and time management. They’re also informed about available campus resources, academic advising opportunities, and social wellness activities. The course initially was designed for first-generation students, but it was soon clear it was beneficial for any student. The business program became the first department to enroll all first-year students in this course.

Embed strategies to improve metacognition and learning in BUS 101. These strategies were drawn from accepted theories in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL). For instance, faculty implemented tools to help students identify gaps in their exam preparation and improve their performance. Each faculty member teaching BUS 101 also agreed to read and implement two to three additional ideas from Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation by Saundra Yancy McGuire.

Provide additional student advising support. While faculty advising by major has long been a hallmark of the student experience at Capital, faculty are underprepared to help students from diverse backgrounds navigate an increasingly complex landscape. Three faculty master advisors were offered modest load reductions to launch a university Advising Office.

We have seen the average rate of D, F, Withdrawal, and Incomplete grades in the introductory business course fall from 18.6 percent to 13 percent in the three years following the initial self-study.

Engage mentors. SOTL experts from Capital faculty became mentors in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to enhance opportunities for faculty development.

While we continue to evaluate the outcome of our Gateway to Completion evaluation, we have seen the average DFWI rate in the introductory business course fall from 18.6 percent to 13 percent in the three years following the initial self-study.

Transferring the Focus

FOE Transfer, the third student success initiative we undertook with the Gardner Institute, focused specifically on meeting the unique needs of transfer students. It was a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between Capital University, Columbus State Community College, and the Gardner Institute. It involved liaisons, a steering committee, and teams of faculty, staff, and students from both schools working together to complete a comprehensive, evidence-based examination of the transfer student experience.

We are currently prioritizing the action items to pursue, but we’ve had some early wins from the partnership. For instance, we have created a grant-funded partnership to provide housing for Columbus State students at the university. Faculty have collaborated to enhance 2+2 program development across a variety of majors, including the humanities, STEM subjects, and business. And the university administration has elevated the consideration of transfer students when making institutional decisions.

‘Developing a Holistic Approach’

The collective transformative work we took to improve the student experience led to perhaps the most significant innovation—Capital University’s decision to merge the divisions of academic affairs and student affairs into a single unit under the office of the provost.

This structural change was pivotal in developing a holistic approach to student learning and success. Formerly siloed academic deans and chairs, faculty governance leaders, and deans and directors with diverse student affairs expertise began to work as a team more intentionally. They began to discuss how to educate the whole person by creating curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities that addressed student needs in the classroom and beyond. These individuals on this team came from all areas of the university, including student development, community engagement, career development, residence life, transition programming, academic success, and diversity and inclusion.

We now retain commuter students at a higher level than residential students. First-generation status is no longer a negative predictor of student success.

As a result of these self-studies and corresponding institutional improvements, the Capital University culture has seen significant gains in student learning and development. We now retain commuter students at a higher level than residential students. First-generation status is no longer a negative predictor of student success.

The institution now has a robust system for detecting and addressing impediments to learning and success. As a result, we have achieved record levels of student retention, persistence, and graduation. We have done all this by creating a culture that embraces student success.

Jody Fournier Jody Fournier is provost and vice president of learning at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. A professor of psychology and a developmental psychologist, he is the architect of Capital’s Student Success initiative.

Keirsten Moore Keirsten Moore is associate provost of learning and professor of business at Capital University.