Student walking at commencement - Fresno State
Story Student Success

Minding the Gap

Hazel Kelly

Faculty and staff across the California State University are working together to narrow the academic equity gap with help from an innovative professional development program.

Student walking at commencement - Fresno State

​With data insights from the CSU Analytics Dashboard, CSU faculty, staff and administrators are exploring new strategies to strengthen student success. Photo courtesy of Fresno State


​​​​It's the little things that count. As simple as it sounds, sometimes just connecting with a student or showing concern can have an impact on their performance in class. For historically underserved and first-generation college students, these connections really count.

That's what CSU Dominguez Hills sociology professor Katy Pinto, Ph.D., along with a team from her campus, discovered when they analyzed data for courses in which underrepresented students were performing better than their peers to uncover strategies that could be replicated. This asset-based approach was part of a 2019 research project for the CSU Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics, a unique university-wide professional development program that places a special focus on finding strategies to close academic equity gaps between students from historically underserved communities and their peers.

​“If you're a first-generation historically underserved student, there are a lot more narratives that tell you that you may be at risk or in danger of not graduating," says Dr. Pinto, who received a Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award (FILA) in 2019. “And these students often think, 'Do I really belong here?'"

So when instructors are able to connect with their students, it helps to humanize the experience of being in higher education, Pinto says. It can send the message, “you have someone who cares about you here," she explains.

Another element of successful courses were those with instructors who helped students develop a positive personal narrative—or counter-narrative—about their place in higher education and society. One of those courses was a CSUDH first-year seminar (UNV 101), Undocumented & ​Unafraid, which explores the relationship between immigration, activism and social justice.

As part of the UNV 101 seminar, CSUDH assistant professor of sociology Joanna Perez, Ph.D., has each student interview an immigrant to create a photo presentation that shows the resiliency of the immigrant experience. Jamie, a first-generation student interviewed her immigrant parents for the project, who showed up to watch their daughter's final presentation wearing “CSUDH Mom" and “CSUDH Dad" sweatshirts to show their support—and it was their first time on campus. Pinto was in the audience for the student's presentation. “I could really see the connections Jamie was making between her culture, her family and the society, and I could see the sense of belonging forming that we need to help our students be successful," she says.

“Counter-narratives are a powerful tool to help students see that they belong in college and that they have the potential for success," says Pinto. She notes that instructors from a wide range of disciplines used counter-narratives in their classrooms and it had a positive effect on student performance in the classes they analyzed.

​​ Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet Dr. Katy Pinto (right) presents on a panel during a meeting for the CSU Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics.

​​​​​Using Data to Illuminate

While graduation rates are at all-time highs for CSU students as a whole, first-generation, low-income and students of color continue to graduate from college at lower rates than their peers. To meet its Graduation Initiative 2025 goals, the CSU is committed to fostering data-informed decision making throughout the organization, and the Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics is part of that strategy.

More than a program, it's a culture shift, says Nele Hempel-Lamer, Ph.D., director of the certificate program and professor of German at California State University, Long Beach. “It's an opportunity for many different stakeholder groups to have a larger conversation about equity on campus and, this is helping to unify the campus discussion around what defines student success."

It's an opportunity  to have a larger conversation about equity. it unifies the campus discussion around what defines student success." —Dr. Nele Hempel-Lamer, Cal State Long Beach

The conversations Pinto and her CSUDH colleagues engaged in as part of the program “wouldn't have happened if we weren't all in the room together. You don't often have the time to sit and reflect and think about how all of the pieces are really connected," she explains, adding that there may be different pockets of data across different areas of campus, and having faculty and staff work together across disciplines provided a more holistic view.   

Beginning its third cohort in January 2020, the program has scaled up quickly, from two interdisciplinary CSU campus teams in the 2018 pilot, to eight CSU campus teams in 2019, and now 19 CSU teams—plus teams from the Cal State Student Association and three non-California universities. 

The learning community first convenes with a day-long off-site kickoff meeting that gathers participants together, then each campus team logs on to a series of biweekly webinars which are immediately followed by face-to-face team time. The CSU Analytics Dashboard​, along with campus-based data, become key tools for participants. The program culminates in each team's data-informed action research project, addressing critical student success issues such as improving advisement, enhancing academic support services and closing equity gaps in retention rates.

Turning Insights into Action

“I never would have known if I hadn't looked at the data," says Jessica O. Perez, Ph.D., assistant professor in the College of Engineering and first-year experience coordinator at Cal Poly Pomona. As part of her work in the spring 2019 cohort, Dr. Perez uncovered an equity gap in the performance of first-year engineering students in a few non-impacted majors.

a lot of us knew instinctively, but to see the hard data to support it made a difference." —Dr. Jessica Perez, Cal Poly Pomona 

T​he discovery prompted Perez to restructure a first-year experience course that focused on these less-prepared (not calculus-ready) students, most of whom were underrepresented minorities and/or Pell recipients. The course, which began in fall 2019, provides extra support with a lecture and learning lab to help first-year students develop essential math skills and get them ready for physics concepts that they'll encounter as they progress toward their degree, Perez explains.

“We're really being intentional on how we serve students in a degree that's hard to complete in five years—if you're prepared. How are we going to get the less-prepared students out in six years?"

Perez explains that she and her colleagues had really open and honest conversations about the data as part of the program. “A lot of us knew [instinctively] what was there, but to see the hard data and the facts to support it made a difference."

While it's still too early to fully assess the success of her restructured course, Perez places strong importance on her first-year students' outcomes. “This is the six-year graduation rate class for the CSU's Graduation Initiative," and engineering is the largest college at CPP, she emphasizes. 

Dashboard Advocates

“People going through our program become CSU Analytics Dashboard ambassadors," says Hempel-Lamer. “They realize that the dashboard needs to be more broadly adopted as a resource if the campus culture is to shift toward being more equity-minded and evidence-based."

Perez and her colleague Keith Forward, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Engineering, did just that. “We went to every department in the college and presented the data dashboards and how we can use them to inform instruction and help make department decisions," says Perez.

“Once you know [about the data], you cannot unknow," says Hempel-Lamer, “and turning the data into action to remove barriers for our students becomes the automatic next step."​ ​​

Graduation Initiative