How the University of South Florida Eliminated Equity Gaps and Skyrocketed Student Outcomes

Civitas Learning Success Stories

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“A fundamental principle of our student success initiative is this: we believe all students can and will succeed if given the opportunity to do so. Our students have demonstrated that. We are here to help students. We are here to help them earn a degree. We have proven that demography is not destiny.” – Dr. Paul Dosal, vice president of Student Affairs & Student Success at the University of South Florida. “


In this Learning Brief, we explore the journey the University of South Florida has been on as they worked collectively to achieve remarkable gains in closing achievement gaps and increasing student success.

With nearly 50,000 students, USF serves a high percentage of under-represented minorities, limited income, and first-generation students. USF has worked successfully to close the achievement gap by race, ethnicity, and income. Black and Hispanic students now graduate at a rate equal to or higher than White students. More than 40 percent of USF’s first-time in college (FTIC) students are Pell recipients. These low-income students are graduating at rates equal to and sometimes higher than non-Pell recipients.


These achievements are the result of 15+ years of strategic planning in the university’s student success initiatives, as well as a deep commitment to using data to help all students succeed. An integral part of their last three strategic plans has been a focus on increasing first-year retention and six-year graduation rates. In 2009, the six-year graduation rate was 48 percent, below the University of Florida (82 percent), Florida State University (70 percent), and the University of Central Florida (63 percent).

Since 2011, USF increased its six-year graduation rate by an impressive 16 percentage points from 52 percent (2005 cohort) to 68 percent (2009 cohort), while maintaining their commitment to serving a diverse undergraduate student body. The first-year retention rate also increased 3 percentage points from 85 to 88 percent during the same time-period. After several years of impressive gains, in 2012, USF hit a performance plateau with retention rates holding steady for three years.

Paul Dosal photo and quote

While many universities would have been content with where they held their retention and graduation rates during those three years, USF was not. They have been relentless in the pursuit of their goal to reach and surpass 90 percent first-year retention and 70 percent six-year graduation rates. In Florida’s performance-based funding model, achieving these goals could unlock additional funding of up to $15 million dollars and the esteemed preeminent status from the Board of Governors.


For many years, they made impressive retention gains by using a homegrown SIS-based predictive analytics model developed by Dr. Tom Miller. But in 2014, USF selected Civitas Learning to push through its performance plateau. This move gave USF an unprecedented level of insight into the full student journey.

“The great thing about the Civitas model is it enhances what we are able to do in terms of these interventions because it’s reading our Canvas LMS and is basing predictions on real-time behavior,” – Dr. Tom Miller, tenured associate professor and Chair of the Persistence Committee


With Miller serving as chair, a Persistence Committee was also formed to hone student outreach. The committee is comprised of staff from more than 11 units including Resident Life, Financial Aid, Counseling Center, Career Services and more. “It’s clear we have the right people at the table,” said Miller, “but we realized we also needed a couple of full-time people to function as case managers.” The university has since trained and placed 10 academic advocates in this case manager role. Only two were net new hires, the remainder transferred into the advocate role from previous advising positions.

It was during this time that Illume’s ongoing product enhancements added the ability to select students by segments and then retrieve an exact list of active students, by name, in that segment. Getting this information into the hands of the advocates and Persistence Committee members accelerated USF’s coordinated outreach and student support.

“That is where it all changed,” said Dosal. “We can quickly and correctly name the students whom we need to help in order for us to reach the 90 percent retention rates; and we can do it early.”


“Our goal is to help our colleagues across the institution do their jobs so they can focus on elevating students,” said Dr. Valeria Garcia, associate vice president of the Office of Decision Support. “While we evolved our use of data, our leadership continued to prioritize student success
and responsible, transparent use of data. We know that not everyone is interested in the full statistical models, so we don’t force that on people. But, anyone can use the Civitas Learning dashboards to get to insights quickly. Civitas Learning’s Student Success Platform has had a significant impact on speed to value for USF’s Office of Decision Support. Requests for data, like persistence probability for any given segment of the student population, takes minutes to fulfill compared to days, or weeks, that it would have taken before Civitas, depending on the complexity of the data requested.” Watch this video to hear from the team at USF as well as their students.


The hard work is paying off. The intersection of extreme ownership of student success, an award-winning case management model, and the precision of Civitas Learning’s platform has propelled USF past their performance plateau.

Data recently submitted for the Board of Governors’ approval shows USF hit the 90 percent first-year retention target. Now they are on track to also surpass the 70 percent six-year graduation rate with final determinations coming later in 2017.


Learn how USF uses data to identify individual students who need support, and enables teams across the institution to connect with them to intervene or inspire as early as the first week of the term. This transformed approach has resulted in the highest first-year retention rate in USF history.


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