Diversity and Democracy

The Power of Intentionality: Cal State Fullerton's Strategic Approach to Ensuring Equity

In recent years, calls for disruption in higher education have orbited around the seductive nucleus of technology—particularly massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other “unbundled” online learning systems—drawn to the promise of expanded access, reduced costs, and increased completion rates. While online education, when deployed responsibly, has great potential to drive change and improve learning, much of the rhetoric surrounding it is aimed not at elite schools, but rather at large, public universities, which disproportionately serve underrepresented students. In this light, the passionate cry to “disrupt higher ed” can be interpreted more bluntly: leave liberal education to the elites, and give a virtual, vocational education to poor people and people of color.

The moral implications of this de facto segregation are, of course, profound and dangerous. Yet the imperative for equity is not only a moral one. In California, where approximately half of children under age eighteen are Latino (Campaign for College Opportunity 2015, 3) and more than half of those in K–12 public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (National Center for Education Statistics 2013), equity is an economic imperative as well. As the gap between rich and poor in America continues to widen (Fitz 2015), and the demographics of our nation continue to diversify (Taylor 2014), the same holds true for states across the country.

California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) is already a leader in expanding access to quality education. We rank first in California and fifth in the nation among colleges and universities awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics (Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education 2015), and fifth in the nation for baccalaureate degrees awarded to underrepresented students (CSUF News Service 2015). But we recognize, too, that access alone is not enough. With approximately thirty-nine thousand students, more than half of whom are first-generation college students, we take seriously the moral mandate not only to strengthen educational opportunities for traditionally underserved students, but also to ensure that those opportunities lead to high-quality academic experiences with a strong liberal education component.

Our approach? Mobilize the campus by instilling a sense of urgency; leverage the power of liberal education; identify and scale true high-impact practices; and accelerate progress through coherent action.

Urgency through Strategic Planning

In October 2012, facing the potential of devastating budget cuts and responding to concerns raised by regional accreditors, Cal State Fullerton launched a university-wide effort to develop a five-year, mission-driven strategic plan. The 2013–18 Strategic Plan supports the university’s vision to “become a model public comprehensive university, nationally recognized for exceptional programs that prepare our diverse student body for academic and professional success” through four overarching, interlinked goals:

  • Goal 1: Develop and maintain a curricular and cocurricular environment that prepares students for participation in a global society and is responsive to workforce needs.
  • Goal 2: Improve student persistence, increase graduation rates university-wide, and narrow the achievement gap for underrepresented students.
  • Goal 3: Recruit and retain a high-quality and diverse faculty and staff.
  • Goal 4: Increase revenue through fundraising, entrepreneurial activities, grants, and contracts. (CSUF n.d.)

Of course, lofty strategic plans do not guarantee that goals will be achieved. Successful change depends on intentionality and quality execution by people on the ground. Acknowledging this, Cal State Fullerton established eleven task forces—composed of faculty, staff, administrators, and students—to drive progress on strategic priorities while harnessing the time, talent, and energy of existing committees and administrative groups. Here, I share three of our most promising areas of focus: general education pathways and outcomes, high-impact practices, and Student Success Teams.

General Education Pathways and Outcomes

We recognize that it doesn’t matter how many students graduate if they are not getting a high-quality education. Therefore, we have formalized our commitment, articulated in the first goal of our strategic plan, to providing “innovative, high-quality programs and services that offer students broad educational experiences, facilitate lifelong habits of intellectual inquiry, and prepare them for successful careers” (CSUF n.d., 5). A key element of this aim is the revitalization of our general education (GE) program.

In February 2014, we held an Academic Senate–Academic Affairs Retreat to advance the conversation about how we could leverage our GE curriculum to drive student learning and success. As I stated in my opening remarks at that retreat, contrary to conventional wisdom, improving student success does not require us to lower standards nor forgo our belief in the virtues of a liberal education. In fact, those of us in higher education know from experience that student learning is central to student success, and that the GE curriculum can ignite and sustain student learning.

The discussions begun at that retreat were carried forth by the Academic Senate’s General Education Committee in collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Studies and General Education as well as the Office of Assessment and Educational Effectiveness. The result was the establishment of a University Policy Statement (approved by the Academic Senate in spring 2015) identifying student learning goals and learning outcomes that can be used to assess GE as an integral program as opposed to assessing individual courses (CSUF 2015). For example, one of the student learning goals states that “students will develop self-awareness, knowledge, intercultural skills, and critical reflection to participate ethically and effectively in local communities and global contexts” (2). Among four learning outcomes for that goal is the intention that, upon completion of GE, “students will describe and understand how to enact ethical and transformative frameworks and modes of exchange and communication that promote rights, social justice, equity, and inclusiveness” (2).

By codifying our GE outcomes into policy, we have institutionalized our commitment to providing an equitable, inclusive, lasting liberal education for all students who call Cal State Fullerton home. But aligning our policies and practices takes time, and each year in which a gap remains means thousands of students do not benefit. Thus while pursuing our long-term plans, we have enacted a short-term pilot program to provide both immediate opportunities for students and invaluable feedback for us as we continue to strengthen the GE program.

In fall 2014, nearly five hundred incoming first-year students participated in the Pathways to Success GE pilot program. Participating students could complete their GE requirements by choosing one of four “pathways” during the first two years of study: Global Studies; Sustainability; Power and Politics; or Food, Health, and Well-Being. In fall 2015, the pilot was expanded to include approximately two thousand students and two additional pathways: Ethics and Leadership; and Science, Technology, and Society. Ninety-three faculty members have taught or will teach GE Pathways courses between fall 2014 and spring 2016. Students now have a clear way to complete GE requirements while also receiving a certificate in an area of particular interest and cultivating a more intentional engagement with their educational journeys.

High-Impact Practices (HIPs)

Research suggests that practices understood to be “high-impact” are particularly beneficial for underrepresented minority student groups (Finley and McNair 2013). Our strategic plan recognizes this in the objective to “ensure that 75% of Cal State Fullerton students participate in at least two HIPs by graduation” (CSUF n.d., 7).

All institutions engage in HIPs; but how do we know which practices are truly powerful? And given limitations on resources, how do we know which investments will offer real benefits to the most students? Cal State Fullerton’s approach to HIPs is driven not by a desire to be perceived as using HIPs, but by a commitment to intellectual honesty: that is, rather than simply labeling the practices we already have as HIPs, we have engaged in comprehensive analysis to identify and strengthen our endeavors to offer high-impact, high-quality, and inclusive education.

In 2013 we established a Strategic Task Force for HIPs, whose members participated in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success. Since then, the task force has worked to establish a baseline of student participation; to validate that our practices are, in fact, high impact; and to develop a program, named REACH (alluding to Research, Experiential and Active learning, engagement with the Community, and exploration of Human diversity), that will promote HIPs as paths toward active, experiential learning.

In May 2015, at a CSU consortium on HIPs funded by a Chancellor’s Office grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cal State Fullerton task force shared our campus’s process of building a robust model for identifying and evaluating HIPs in terms of university learning outcomes, retention, and graduation. Faculty and staff in Cal State Fullerton’s colleges are currently being trained in using HIPs, and we have launched a pilot project to build upon existing HIPs and introduce new ones in English and math courses in fall 2015.

In the meantime, our indefatigable faculty members continue their excellent work of engaging students in experiential educational opportunities that expand and enrich students’ personal, academic, and professional development. Recent examples include a faculty mentorship that resulted in a business administration major becoming a finalist in an international business analytics competition; a simulation exercise that exposed Community Health Nursing students to the daily realities of poverty and increased their awareness and sensitivity toward their patients; and a joint faculty–student research project that resulted in an undergraduate student’s first peer-reviewed publication, exploring the medieval origins of the mathematical concept of curvitas. These are the types of practices and results we seek to build upon as we move forward with HIPs on our campus.

Student Success Teams

Finally, Cal State Fullerton has engaged in proactive student advising with a specific focus on narrowing equity gaps and improving the success of all students. Since the launch of the strategic plan, the Division of Academic Affairs and the Office of Academic Programs have collaborated with all eight colleges, the Irvine campus, the Office of Graduate Studies, the Division of Student Affairs, and the Division of Information Technology to expand the number of professional advisors, establish several college-based student success centers, institute mandatory academic advising, strengthen degree audits, and develop assessment procedures for advising efforts.

These activities go above and beyond traditional advising systems and services. But we didn’t stop there. We recognized an opportunity to create a wholly new, innovative structure that could be more flexible, dynamic, and outcomes-oriented than traditional university systems. During the 2014–15 academic year, we gathered the brightest, most experienced advising minds from across the university and assembled them into college-based Student Success Teams (SSTs). Though the exact composition of the SSTs varies from college to college, they are generally chaired by the college’s associate dean (or, in the case of special populations, the director of the Office of Graduate Studies) and include the assistant dean and a career specialist from student affairs, retention specialists and graduation specialists from the Academic Advisement Center, and faculty advisors and college staff.

Each SST operates as an innovative “advising laboratory” within its unit’s unique context. Nimble and responsive, proactive and technologically savvy, these ten SSTs collectively present a vision for intelligent, data-driven student advising that fuses the deep institutional knowledge of faculty and staff with a clear mandate to improve persistence and narrow achievement gaps.

The SST Steering Committee—composed of the chairs of each SST, the provost, the vice president for student affairs, the associate vice president for academic programs, and the associate vice president for student affairs—meets monthly to exchange best practices. The goal of the steering committee is to empower the “front lines” by giving the SSTs the autonomy to implement advising campaigns tailored to their students’ needs, while also allowing them to draw on the robust technological and strategic resources of the university as a whole.

Building Momentum

While much work remains, our progress to date is impressive—and our momentum is building. In just three years since the launch of our strategic plan, we have exceeded our six-year graduation rate goal (moving from 51 to 62.3 percent, when our original goal for 2018 was 61 percent) and have made significant progress in narrowing our achievement gap between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students (from 12 to 8.7 percentage points, when our goal for 2018 is 6 percentage points). We have achieved these results through the tireless work of our campus community as we operate within a framework that emphasizes coherence of action and intentionality of purpose.

By fulfilling our vision, we hope to model to other institutions across the nation how they too can deliver on our country’s twin promises of opportunity and social mobility for the diverse students who are coming of age in America today.


Campaign for College Opportunity. 2015. The State of Higher Education in California: Latino Report. Los Angeles: Campaign for College Opportunity. http://collegecampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-State-of-Higher-Education_Latinos.pdf.

CSUF. N.d. “California State University, Fullerton Strategic Plan 2013–18.” http://planning.fullerton.edu/_resources/pdf/CSUF-Strategic-Plan.pdf.

———. 2015. “General Education: Programmatic Student Learning Goals and Learning Outcomes.” http://www.fullerton.edu/senate/documents/PDF/400/UPS%20411.203.pdf.

CSUF News Service. 2015. “CSUF Is No. 5 in Nation for Graduating Underrepresented Students.” October 8. http://news.fullerton.edu/2015fa/Diverse-2015-ranking.aspx.

Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Fitz, Nicholas. 2015. “Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse than You Think.” Scientific American, March 31. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/.

Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. 2015. “Total Bachelor’s Degrees Granted.” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, May 18: 8–9. http://issuu.com/hohost/docs/ho-05-18-2015/7?e=15379375/12943718.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2013. Digest of Education Statistics, Table 204.10. Washington, DC: US Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_204.10.asp?current=yes.

Taylor, Paul. 2014. “America’s Racial Tapestry Is Changing.” The Next America. Online report published by the Pew Research Center, April 10. http://www.pewresearch.org/next-america/#Americas-Racial-Tapestry-Is-Changing.

José L. Cruz is provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Fullerton.

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