A diverse group of students walking through campus.

CU Denver joins pilot project to study student diversity

November 18, 2019

CU Denver has been selected as one of six universities to participate in a pilot study aimed at helping universities across the U.S. transform the student experience in order to create more equitable learning environments and increase completion rates.

Launched Nov. 11 by a cohort of university leaders, faculty members, researchers, and national education organizations, the Student Experience Project (SEP) will put into practice more than a decade of social psychology research on the correlation between community support and academic success. The Raikes Foundation, with joint support from the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, is funding the two-and-a-half-year project. CU Denver received a grant of $250,000.

Selected through an application process, the six higher education organizations will work together to test, implement, and scale innovative practices to transform the college student experience and in turn support student success. 

  1. University of Colorado Denver
  2. Colorado State University 
  3. The University of New Mexico
  4. University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  5. University of Toledo 
  6. Portland State University 
Student Experience Project branding

SEP forms to increase graduation rates for all students

The SEP project formed in response to a changing landscape in higher education—institutions are enrolling more diverse student populations than ever before, and completion rates remain significantly lower among these populations, which include students of color, students from low-income income households, and first-generation students. 

Data shows that at four-year institutions, 56.4% of students graduate within six years. Another 11.4% transfer to another institution and graduate within six years. The SEP aims to bring those numbers up by using evidence-based practices to transform the student experience, ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to graduate.

Considering that 49% of CU Denver’s first-year students are first-generation and 42% of the total study body are students of color, the premise of the SEP closely aligns with CU Denver’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. 

“Our participation in the Student Experience Project is one important way we honor our campus commitment to elevate student success and seek to create a more cohesive, collaborative, and inclusive campus culture,” said Richard M. Allen, PhD, associate dean for Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum, who is the director of the SEP on CU Denver’s campus. 

Turning data into action: next steps for the SEP

The SEP’s first focus is improving equity in student experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, since data overwhelmingly shows that students in these fields face unique challenges to feeling a sense of belonging and staying on track academically. 

CU Denver’s campus has a number of programs focused on STEM teaching and learning, but none that center on students’ psychological experiences in their STEM courses, said Michael Ferrara, PhD, a professor of math and statistical sciences who serves as CU Denver’s STEM lead for the SEP.

“I think that the SEP’s emphasis on this important dimension of student success is already having a positive strategic impact across multiple initiatives, and will provide a robust and durable benefit to our students going forward,” Ferrara said.

The project kicked off with leaders from the six universities surveying faculty, staff, and students, as well as engaging student and faculty focus groups, to get an accurate picture of the learning environments in existing STEM programs. Over the next few months, members of the SEP will analyze the data to identify two goals moving forward: interventions that can be applied across all campuses, and interventions that can be applied in clusters based on campus’ specific needs. 

More finite details of the interventions will be released spring 2020 and put into effect fall 2020. Once piloted among students in STEM disciplines, leaders will create replicable models that can be applied more broadly on campus, for students in all fields of study.

The SEP, CU Denver faculty and staff say, is already having a positive effect on CU Denver by helping the university ask the critical questions needed to ensure student success moving forward. 

“The SEP has provided us with valuable time and resources to explore and address psychological barriers that impact our students’ pursuit of their degrees,” said Amanda Beyer-Purvis, project manager of STEM Inclusive Excellence Initiatives. “We have identified several areas that will benefit from the Student Experience Project and cannot wait to see the impact these initiatives will have on our student success.”