An unusual day

Walkers in the snow south of Morrill Hall

Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Iowa Staters make their way across central campus near Morrill Hall Monday as the snowfall intensified. More than six inches fell during the day, one of mid-Iowa's largest snowfalls in the last couple of years. Take heart: Spring break arrives in about four weeks.

Idea-sharing alliance drives innovative Iowa State student success efforts

Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance

Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, spoke Feb. 5 at Iowa State's campus symposium on closing the student achievement gap. Iowa State is a founding member of the 11-university alliance. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

A first-of-its-kind collaboration with 10 other large public research universities has been the driving force behind numerous recently established Iowa State initiatives designed to help more students thrive.

The efforts were guided or inspired by the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), which Iowa State co-founded in fall 2014. UIA members share strategies for assisting students of color, first-generation students and low-income students, with hopes of replicating what has worked and avoiding what has not. While faculty from different universities frequently partner on academic research, institutions traditionally are less forthcoming about their approaches to improving student outcomes.

"We're trying to encourage people to think you don't have to tinker in a silo," UIA executive director Bridget Burns said Monday at the Memorial Union.

Burns was the keynote speaker at an Iowa State data symposium on closing the achievement gap, which included an in-depth presentation on ISU graduation and retention rates for numerous demographics and breakout sessions on related topics with students, staff, faculty and administrators.

"We learned in these conversations that we cannot treat all of our students the same, that every student has a unique set of talents and skills, and that we need to be intentional about how we work with each of those students so they have the tools they need to be successful," President Wendy Wintersteen said in her closing remarks.

The alliance aims to meet the rising need for college graduates by boosting the number of degrees granted and the diversity of graduates at 11 universities, which have a combined enrollment of about 400,000 students. It's working, according to data shared by Burns.

UIA's initial goal was to produce an additional 68,000 degrees by 2025, half to be earned by low-income students -- a population whose degree attainment has been flat for decades, even as a college education has become standard for students from high-income families. UIA schools are on track to beat the initial goal with an increase of about 94,000 degrees in its first decade. From 2014 to 2017, the number of degrees UIA institutions granted to low-income students eligible for Pell Grants increased 25 percent.

"We can make change at scale if we work together and be strategic," Burns told a crowd of about 150 people.


The alliance has promoted a set of initiatives adopted by all member institutions, such as the full-time fellows at each university devoted to creating, managing and monitoring new programs. The other efforts employed by UIA schools include:

  • Predictive analytics, which uses historical academic data to identify students who are off-track. Available to any interested advisers since fall 2016, the data platform will be used in all Iowa State departments as of spring 2018. By raising retention and graduation rates, predictive analytics offers big savings potential for students and taxpayers.
  • Proactive advising, an interventional model that capitalizes on predictive analytics. As part of a four-year, $8.9 million study of academic advising involving 10,000 students -- the largest-ever scientific study of advising effectiveness, Burns said -- UIA members are intervening with at-risk students and tracking how it affects outcomes. At Iowa State, two full-time Cyclone Success "coaches" give students selected for the program intensive guidance on overcoming academic and personal challenges.
  • Completion grants, a program that pays off a university bill of $1,000 or less for Pell-eligible seniors who can't enroll for their final semester without first paying off their pending balance. The grants were offered at Iowa State for the first time last fall and are paid for by Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

'A complete transformation'

Iowa State also has tackled some projects inspired by the alliance, UIA fellow Gralon Johnson said. A meeting of stakeholders in February 2017 produced a number of ideas, including the Feb. 5 data symposium. An effort to create a central inventory and common nomenclature for Iowa State's student success programs also is underway, Johnson said.

Following the lead of fellow UIA institution Michigan State, ISU's current study of the student onboarding process was UIA-inspired, Johnson said. Recommendations on how to streamline communication with incoming students are expected this spring.

A recent decision to end the summer trial enrollment program, which allowed prospective students who didn't meet admissions requirements to take summer classes, also was in the spirit of the UIA's aim to abandon what isn't working. Associate vice president for enrollment management and student success Laura Doering said during a breakout session that the six-year graduation rate for summer trial participants was just 39 percent.

Iowa State's longstanding and successful use of learning communities -- three out of four freshmen join one of the 90 communities -- was a key reason it was invited to help form the alliance. But Arizona State president and alliance chair Michael Crow (an Iowa State alumnus and faculty member from 1988 to 1991) told a newly appointed President Wintersteen it wasn't the only reason. Crow told her Iowa State is in the alliance because of its commitment to accessibility and the land-grant mission. It seeks to educate more than just top-performing students.

Working to do that better is difficult, but change is coming, Burns said.  

"You're in the midst of a complete transformation at Iowa State," she said. "Ten years from now, your students will be experiencing a fundamentally different institution."

Campus data spells out student achievement gap

Closing the achievement gap for Iowa State's underrepresented, first-generation or low-income students wouldn't require "astronomical" numbers, learned participants at a campus symposium Feb. 5. About 150 faculty, staff and administrators attended the symposium, a starting point for assessing and eliminating the student retention and graduation disparity that exists by race, socio-economic status and other variables. The project is one Iowa State is taking on as a member of the University Innovation Alliance.

For example, retaining three more underrepresented students from the fall 2010 freshman class for their sophomore year, 24 more for their junior year and graduating 37 more after six years would have moved their progression rates within five percentage points of their white peers. Five percent is the "closing" goal. Even so, 37 students is nearly 12 percent of underrepresented freshmen in fall 2010.

To bring underrepresented students' six-year graduation rate even with white students, 56 more from the fall 2010 class would have needed to graduate.

As President Wendy Wintersteen noted in her comments at the end of the day, "We have a long way to go, but we also learned there's an advantage to small numbers."

Matthew Pistilli, director of student affairs assessment and research, presented data that laid out where Iowa State is now. In about 25 minutes and 100 slides, he covered retention and graduation rates for underrepresented students at Iowa State, the status of programs and projects that support them, and how far the university needs to "move the needle" to help more students successfully graduate. Amanda DeGraff, assistant director in the office of institutional research, also produced the report.

Fall 2010 entering class: Retention and graduation comparison by race (percentage)

Student group (size)










Underrepresented minority (312)





   Subset: African-American (129)





   Subset: Hispanic (169)





White (3,623)





Underrepresented minority: Those who declare African American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander as their race/ethnicity

Fall 2010 entering class: Retention and graduation comparison (percentages)

Student group (size)










First generation (1,348)





Not first generation (3,170)





Pell grant recipients (1,041)





Not Pell grant recipients (3,477)





First-generation: Neither parent/guardian completed at least a bachelor’s degree
Pell grant recipient: Student's expected family contribution allows him/her to receive grants reserved for the lowest-income students

Closing the gap for either first-generation students or non-Pell eligible students, Pistilli said, would require retaining 22 more per year from either group over the six-year period. After six years, Iowa State also would have graduated an additional 120 students in each student group. The cumulative effect of that, he noted, also helps the university's bottom line. Retaining more students provides more resources to invest in their success.

Pistilli said the most precipitous student attrition consistently occurs after the sophomore year.

"The challenge, it seems, is getting students into the third year of study -- at which point attrition becomes relatively small and success seems to increase," he said.

Support hasn't kept up with growth

Pistilli said that despite the challenges to retaining underrepresented students, their numbers have grown since 2010 -- 23 percent by 2016 for underrepresented students and 34 percent for multicultural students (includes underrepresented plus Asian-American students and those who self-identify with two or more races).

Unfortunately, funding for two scholarship programs with a track record of retaining these students -- the George Washington Carver and Multicultural Vision Program scholarships -- remained flat. Two fewer students (193) received one of these scholarships in 2016 than in 2010. If scholarship funding growth had kept up with the growth in student numbers, 681 underrepresented students could have received one of the scholarships -- or more than 1,100 multicultural students, which actually would have exceeded the enrolled and eligible number.

He also cited support programs such as learning communities, multicultural liaison officers and other discipline-specific efforts already in place.

"The challenge for us isn't knowing what to do. It's figuring out how to scale what we have," Pistilli said.


New grant encourages Cy-Hawk research teams

The research offices at Iowa State and the University of Iowa have partnered to offer seed grants for collaborative work between the two schools.

"We are excited about leveraging the two universities' complementary bioscience research strengths and building cross-institutional partnerships to support two of Iowa's bioscience platforms for economic development," said vice president for research Sarah Nusser.

The Building ISU-UI Research Partnerships Seed Grant Program offers up to $50,000 per project over two years to interdisciplinary teams studying the areas of antimicrobial resistance, brain science, vaccines and immunotherapies, and medical devices. The intent is to spark collaborative team projects that attract sponsored funding from federal agencies, while raising the research profiles at both institutions.

Find funding right here

The new seed grant is one of 15 internal funding programs offered by the vice president for research office. The funding opportunities aimed at helping faculty advance their research careers range from new interdisciplinary research to cost-share for research instrumentation and open access publications.

An overview of the programs (PDF) is available on the research office's Grants Hub website. Submissions do not require GoldSheet or Cardinal Sheet forms required for external grant applications.

Internal funding is available for research in all disciplines. Several programs were created exclusively for interdisciplinary projects:

Help with publishing, planning, positions and more

The interdisciplinary grants are only part of the diverse pool of internal funds available to researchers. The Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities offers three grants -- up to $10,000 or $15,000 each -- to support planning, research and symposium in the arts and humanities. The Bailey Research Career Development Award -- up to $50,000 annually for three years -- funds innovative research in emerging fields, with practical applications.

Funding also is available to support research activities and excellence, such as graduate research positions and scholarly publication costs. And a collection of four cost-sharing funding options offer help with research instrumentation, sponsored programs, faculty development and faculty start-up packages.

Wickert details challenges of proposed budget cut

Next P&S Council meeting: 
March 1 (2:10-4 p.m., MU Gallery)

Next P&S Council seminar: March 13 (2-3 p.m., MU Pioneer Room)

Senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert told the Professional and Scientific Council at its Feb. 1 meeting that the Iowa Senate's Jan. 25 proposal to cut an additional $6.9 million from Iowa State's state operating appropriations was "surprising" and seemed to target higher education in a "very clear and direct way."

The Senate proposal, which comes on top of an $11.5 million cut in state funding last fiscal year, may push ISU to its financial limits, Wickert said.

Wickert said Iowa State and the other regent universities plan for funding shortfalls, but the negative impact of slashing almost $7 million from Iowa State's budget nearly three-quarters into FY18 is burdensome.

"This is what really makes this difficult and very negative and almost cruel -- and I choose that word specifically -- because most of the [fiscal] year is already over," he said. "There are four quarters in a year and we really won't know until March what they are going to do, then you only have that next quarter between March and July 1 to be able to handle it."

Wickert urged councilors to contact state legislators and convey the "remarkable return on investment" the state of Iowa and its taxpayers receive for every dollar that supports Iowa State.

"I think it's important we make a powerful statement that further cuts to our institution, as well as the sister regent institutions, will start to cut down to the bone of our higher education system," he said.

Additional presentations

  • Sarah Nusser, vice president for research, provided an overview of the research office's latest activities and accomplishments. She highlighted the upcoming Iowa State Research Day on March 27 (11 a.m.-4 p.m., Memorial Union ballrooms), which includes lightning talks, poster displays, exhibits and resource tables. Gregory Petsko, chair of the department of biochemistry, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, will give the keynote address, "Science and the Arts/Humanities: A Marriage Made in Heaven."
  • Kristin Constant, interim vice president and chief information officer, gave an update on Workday. She said much has been accomplished, including more than 200 design confirmation sessions on how to create a particular business process or component of the Workday system, and testing of more than 2,500 individual business process scenarios. Because of the volume of work yet to be done and a change of leadership, she said the original launch date for Workday's finance and human capital management systems will not be July 1, as planned. Constant said a new launch date will be announced in early March.

Other business

  • The council was presented the first reading of a motion to amend the council's rules and bylaws
  • Suzanne Ankerstjerne, geological and atmospheric sciences, was seated on the council, representing academic affairs. She will serve on the awards committee and represent Ames Laboratory employees.
  • Councilors submitted nominations for officers. Nominations will remain open through 2 p.m. March 1 and must be submitted to the representation committee.
    • President-elect, no nominations
    • Vice president for planning and budget, Barry McCroskey, value-added agriculture, extension and outreach
    • Vice president for university community relations, Kelly Friesleben, admissions
    • Vice president for equity and inclusion, Jacob Cummings, equal opportunity; Carolyn Duven, dean of students
    • Secretary/treasurer, no nominations

Drop in university utility rates is good news for tight budgets

Most university utility rates will decrease slightly when the new fiscal year starts in July, giving colleges and auxiliary units a break on their monthly bills.

Jeff Witt, utilities director, said FY19 rates finalized last week will lower the cost of electricity by 3.2 percent, chilled water used for cooling by 3.5 percent, and water and sewer by 2 percent. Charges for steam used to heat buildings will remain the same, he said.

Utility rates are reviewed every year, but it's somewhat unusual for rates to decrease, Witt said. They were steady from 2014 to 2016 and dropped in FY17 before increasing for the current year, he said.

"It's good news for the university in a tight budget time, obviously," he said.

Electric and chilled water rates fell because the cost of fuels used in the power plant's boilers -- natural gas and coal -- continue to be low, Witt said. The increased efficiency of three new natural gas boilers that began operating in early 2016 also have helped drive down energy costs, he said.

Water and sewer rates are decreasing because water prices have been lower than expected since the city's new treatment plant opened in August, Witt said.


Varieties semifinals are this weekend

Four female singers/dancers

Students perform in a mini-musical, "Time Warped," during the 2016 Varieties talent competition. Submitted photo.

The 87th edition of "Varieties," Iowa State's annual student musical talent competition, will be held over two weekends this month in the Memorial Union Great Hall.

Semifinals will take place on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9-10, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. performance each night. Varieties final performances also will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 23-24. Doors will open at 6 p.m.

Varieties shows last about two hours and include a set of mini-musicals alternating with vignettes, all pulled together and introduced by emcee teams of two or three people. ISU students compete in all three categories.

Musicals are up to 22 minutes long and feature original lyrics and choreography performed by groups of 30 to 60 students. Vignettes, with a time limit of 10 minutes, showcase a wide range of student talents, from comedy to juggling, dancing and singing.

Large groups, vignettes and emcees will compete both nights of the semifinals. The top four mini-musicals, top four vignettes and top two emcees advance to compete at finals.

"Step Into Stardom" is the theme this year and contestants will find ways to incorporate it into their performances.

Semifinals tickets are $10 ($6 for ISU students). Finals tickets are $14 (ISU students $8). A $4 ticket discount also is available for groups of 10 or more and youth 18 years and younger. Purchase tickets at, or in the MU Maintenance Shop box office and by phone (294-8349), weekdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. An additional service fee applies to telephone and online orders.