At today's Student Success Summit, faculty, staff and students at the University of New Mexico began laying the Foundations of Excellence – an initiative focused on increasing the success of first year students.

"This is a time for change and transformation," said Kate Krause, dean of University College and of Honors College.

With a 76.6 percent third semester retention rate, UNM needs to see some change. "Retention just went up two percent. That's a lot, but it's not anywhere near where we need to be," said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Chaouki Abdallah.

Foundations of Excellence, a national initiative of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, isn't a one-size-fits-all plan for success. Drew Koch, UNM's advisor on Foundations of Excellence from the Gardner Institute, emphasized again and again that "context matters." Through the initiative, UNM will combine knowledge gained at other colleges and universities with self-study revealing what works and what doesn't at UNM and for New Mexico.

The initiative goes beyond raising retention and six-year graduations rates. It's about excellence. Abdallah suggested adopting a new paradigm of success in graduating students. "I want to challenge all of us to start thinking of the four-year graduation rate," he said.

Koch echoed the idea that universities and colleges need to aim for a higher standard. "If you focus and attain that higher standard, retention is the bi-product," he said.

Koch warned attendees that overturn in senior administration is the biggest reason for universities failing to fully implement Foundations of Excellence. For the initiative to succeed in the long run, faculty, staff and students must take ownership.

"Really what it takes is everyone in this room and beyond," Abdallah said.

That also means working with new partners. Faculty Senate President Amy Neel said participating in Foundations of Excellence is "going to let us cut the tethers holding us here so we can finally get out of our little bins, our little silos."

The sacrifice of time can pay off. A study of 144 institutions that participated in Foundations of Excellence in 2008-09 found that colleges and universities that implemented the initiative to a high degree saw immediate increases in first and second semester retention and in revenue from tuition, Koch said. "High implementers did not have to recruit more students, they kept the students they had, and they generated more revenue."

A broad volunteer task force of faculty, students and staff, further broken down into a steering committee and nine topical dimensions, guides the initiative. Each of the nine dimensions – philosophy, organization, learning, faculty, transitions, all students, diversity, roles and purposes, and improvement – will recommend strategies and tactics to implement towards first-year student success. The committees began or continued their work during the summit.