Q & A with graduation rate champion David Laude, plenary speaker for Student Success Summit

Dr. David Laude
Dr. David Laude

The following is a Q & A with Dr. David Laude, Sr., Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Professor of Chemistry, University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Laude is the opening plenary speaker at the Student Success Summit set April 3-4 in Louisville.

Q: You are known as a graduation rate champion. Did you choose this focus or did it choose you?

A. We found each other. In my role as student dean in the College of Natural Sciences for 15 years, I was confronted initially in the mid -1990s by a very high non-passing rate in gateway courses and a college graduation rate of only around 25 percent. Over the next decade, I worked with the administration and faculty to create a more welcoming and student-centered environment in the college with the natural outcome of improving student persistence. Although at the time I never really thought of it in the context of graduation rates, the college more than doubled the number of students that graduated each year and grew to be the largest college on campus. When called to the Provost’s Office to take on graduation rate improvements, I realized that I was simply being asked to apply the student-centered strategies I had used with STEM students to a more general population.

Q: What inspires you every day to keep making a difference for students at risk of dropping out?

A. That is easy. My first year in college I was just like the students who initially struggle at UT and more specifically, struggle in the large general chemistry course I now teach. My personal experience included challenges in terms of academic readiness and socialization issues that in my first year of college prompted me to come very close to dropping out. I think this is the reason it has been easy for me to develop an empathic connection to the students coming from disadvantage.

Q. You’ve developed several successful programs and initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin that have achieved transformative results. What are the top three factors that have contributed to this success? Does this potential exist at colleges and universities across the nation?

A:  1. The leadership of the institution has to be committed to student success, regardless of how it is measured, and the faculty and staff has to believe it is more than just words. I have been fortunate that my Presidents and Provosts have made it clear that a student-centered campus is a priority.
2. Data drives everything. It is easy to applaud the creation of programs that are nice to students, but do they make a difference? The real work comes in assessing the historical roots in the data for student failure and attrition and responding with programmatic efforts that work and are personalized to the individual student.
3. The institution must develop a student-centered mindset both inside the classroom across the campus. When a student drops out, the campus, both academic and student affairs, should take the view that it has failed the student rather than assuming it wasn’t a good fit or that the student didn’t belong.

Of course, the potential exists. Nothing I have described above places a substantial burden on campus resources. It is about the attitude of the campus toward students.

Q: Can everyone working on a campus affect student success? What role(s) can/should faculty, administrators and staff members play in efforts to increase student success?

A: If the entire campus isn’t engaged, the effort will fail. Faculty should focus on creating a classroom environment in which they facilitate learning and focus, while making sure the least prepared students succeed. Administrators need to send the clear message that student success is a priority. Underutilization of staff is probably the biggest waste of resources. When we started the University Leadership Network and needed internship positions, we turned to campus partners in every office on campus. Today we have over 1,000 campus partners who provide the internship environment, mentoring and sense of belonging that contributes to dramatically higher persistence and graduation rates for the students most likely to drop out.

Q: Making sure that students are college-ready has been a focus for K-12 and postsecondary partners for some time. The theme of the summit is about flipping that conversation and asking whether our colleges and universities are truly student-ready. What advice do you have for those who are working to ensure their institutions are ready to serve all students whom they admit?

A:  My bottom line perspective is that if an institution admits a student and takes his or her money, then the institution should assume responsibility for that student’s successful completion. When you look at the data, if there are student characteristics that suggest a high historical likelihood of failure, don’t just accept that and admit the next class of students to repeat the cycle of failure. Own the responsibility for a student’s success and make it happen.

Read more about Dr. Laude’s program at the University of Texas: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html?_r=0

Learn more about the Student Success Summit: http://cpe.ky.gov/studentsuccess/index.html