Higher Learning Commission

A Fiscally Sustainable Model: Institutionalizing Student Success Projects That Work

John Barthell, Wei Chen, Charlotte Simmons, Michael Springer and Greg Wilson

Introduction and Background

Over the past several years, the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), like most other state-supported institutions, has experienced a marked decline in state funding. Recognizing that, as Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (2013, 3) astutely point out in The Metropolitan Revolution, “the cavalry is not coming,” the UCO College of Mathematics and Science (CMS) has found mechanisms to incentivize faculty to pursue external funding in support of undergraduate research and curriculum innovation. It has done so through the formation of several interdisciplinary centers that promote faculty development, including the Center for Undergraduate Research and Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CURE-STEM), which provides faculty members with resources that include reassignment time, student wages, travel funds and supplies in support of their student-centered research programs. In turn, faculty members have obtained external funding (including National Science Foundation REU, STEP, S-STEM, and MRI grants) that support undergraduate participation in research, with an emphasis on including members of underrepresented groups and on early and prolonged research experiences. The CMS has experienced a surge in undergraduate majors during this same time period, with an increase of 65.63 percent between 2006 and 2014, and this growth has been accompanied by a demonstrated increase in retention and graduation rates, as well as the GPAs of students engaged in research (University of Central Oklahoma Factbook 2010, 2015). In addition, the model the CMS has used is fiscally sustainable, which has allowed the institutionalization of grant components beyond the funding period. An important outgrowth of CURE-STEM has been two focused interdisciplinary centers with more than a dozen faculty members each from across all STEM departments that collaborate on peer-reviewed publications, grant proposal submissions, and the mentorship of students: the Center for Interdisciplinary Biomedical Education and Research (CIBER) and the Center for Research and Education in Interdisciplinary Computation (CREIC). An exciting byproduct of this new collaborative culture in the College is the recent approval for the design of a new interdisciplinary STEM building that will house these two centers.

UCO College of Mathematics and Science Interdisciplinary Centers for Research and Education  

Consistent with UCO’s emphasis on providing high-impact practice experiences for our students, the CMS initiated CURE-STEM in 2008 with four faculty “Scholars” who received resources (reassignment time, student wages, supplies and travel funds) in exchange for developing one federal grant proposal per year in support of undergraduate research and student learning. These efforts were based on models by Elgren (2004) and Mike Nelson, former dean of the College of Science and Health at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse. Specifically, the CURE-STEM model developed by John Barthell (former CMS dean and current UCO provost) is based on a description offered by Elgren for understanding the relationships among faculty development, student learning, and new knowledge and encouraged by the positive results attained by Nelson, who realized a 16.4 to 1 return on investment over a five-year period by investing $5,000 per incoming faculty member to incentivize grantsmanship (Agarwal and Sudhakaran 2010). Three years after initiating CURE-STEM, the CMS had already seen a more than two-fold increase in external funding with an overall investment ratio of 12.1 to 1 for the program, despite investing more than $10,000 per Scholar (Barthell et al. 2013a). Although faculty members initially were skeptical because external grantsmanship had previously not been a significant part of the culture at UCO, a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution (PUI), the program has 29 participating Scholars this fall (with an additional two in in the Transformative Learning Scholars program described below). The opportunity to participate in CURE-STEM has become an important incentive in recruiting student-centered faculty to the CMS amid the continuing decline of state funding for education.

During the five-year period following the initiation of CURE-STEM, CMS faculty garnered nearly eight million dollars in external grant funds, more than a 40 percent increase over those attained in the preceding decade (University of Central Oklahoma Factbook 2003, 2008, 2013). The College has concomitantly experienced a marked increase in undergraduate majors and diversity relative to the rest of the campus. The number of incoming first-time freshmen declaring majors in the college has increased by 33 percent (9 percent in STEM) over the past five years, for example, as compared to 11 percent for the campus as a whole (University of Central Oklahoma Demographics Book 2015). In addition, the number of CMS majors self-reporting as Hispanic has increased by 46 percent during this same time period, relative to the 37 percent increase for UCO overall. The corresponding percentage difference for American Indians is 5 percent for the CMS and -13 percent for UCO.

While the increases described above cannot be conclusively and solely linked to the surge in external funding, there is little doubt that programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) had a significant impact. For example, the NSF STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP) funded a four-week residential undergraduate research program that paired incoming freshmen with CURE-STEM Scholar mentors and emphasized the participation of first-generation students and members of underrepresented groups. The NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program (S-STEM) program provided four-year scholarships to Summer Bridge alumni with financial need, enabling and strongly encouraging them to continue to engage in undergraduate research throughout their baccalaureate experience. As reported in Barthell et al. (2013a), the first-to-second-year retention rate for the 2010 cohort of 36 STEP students was 81 percent as compared to that of UCO STEM students overall (48 percent). Among the 27 of these students who engaged in research during their freshman year, the retention rate increased to 96 percent. The first-to-second-year UCO STEM freshman retention rate increased by 158 percent over the course of the decade-long STEP program, as compared to the more modest increase of 4 percent for UCO students overall. Likewise, the UCO STEM freshman six-year graduation rate increased by around 300 percent over the decade from 2004 to 2013, and the overall UCO six-year graduation rate increased by 115 percent (Barthell et al. 2014a). Of the 81 Summer Bridge alumni funded by the S-STEM grant, 53 percent are female and 53 percent are non-Caucasian (including 12 African Americans, 13 Hispanics, 10 Native Americans, 7 Asians, and 1 Other). The program has maintained an overall retention rate of 75 percent. Meanwhile, CMS majors self-reporting as a member of an underrepresented group or an international student has risen by 23 percent over the past decade, as compared to 13 percent for UCO (University of Central Oklahoma Demographics Book 2015; University of Central Oklahoma Factbook 2015). The external grants received are also having an impact at the national level, as evidenced by the decade-long success of the international NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program with UCO as a Principal Investigator (PI) institution. Of the 63 students participating in the program during the last ten years, 75 percent are currently known to have self-identified as being from a minority and/or underrepresented group; 62 percent of the 19 underrepresented minority participants currently known to have completed undergraduate school have been accepted into postgraduate programs (Barthell et al., unpublished; see also Barthell et al. 2013b).

An important precursor to the initiation of the CURE-STEM program was a renegotiation of the UCO indirect cost distribution in favor of the PI (30 percent) and the PI’s college (30 percent). The indirect costs generated from grants, together with a concurrent realignment of the CMS Dean’s Office budget in favor of faculty and students, made the implementation of successful grant components such as Supplemental Instruction (SI) and Summer Bridge possible.

Two additional centers, CIBER and CREIC, which foster collaborative research in the biomedical field and advanced computation, respectively, have emerged from the collaboration of CURE-STEM Scholars. Faculty participants in these centers have successfully competed for federal funding to support their undergraduate research programs and to advance common goals for the centers. For example, CIBER has received two Fulbright Visiting Scholar Awards to host visitors from Iraq, and CREIC was recently awarded an NSF Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grant to purchase a high-performance computing cluster. Collaborative projects involving faculty members and students from multiple STEM departments have become common in the college, often leading to joint publications, presentations, and co-mentoring of students. CIBER and CREIC faculty members have been awarded three patents in as many years, representing the first UCO-sponsored patents ever filed. Meanwhile, the CMS opened three interdisciplinary laboratories for CIBER and CREIC participants last fall and is currently in the design phase for a new Interdisciplinary STEM Research and Education Building, the first new space on our campus dedicated to STEM since 1997.

Broadening Participation

Office of High-Impact Practices (OHIP).

Having fostered a culture emphasizing a faculty-development student-centered approach to teaching, scholarship, and service in the CMS for seven years, an Office of High Impact Practices (OHIP) was added in 2014 with the explicit goal of increasing the involvement of a broader array of disciplines in high-impact educational practices with an emphasis on undergraduate research (Kuh 2008). OHIP built on the success of an on-campus student grant program entitled Research, Creative, and Scholarly Activities (RCSA) to increase involvement of students from across the colleges in undergraduate research and to promote involvement at the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). The CMS, with its strong emphasis on promoting undergraduate research, saw an increase in participation in the RCSA program from 10 grants for the 2008–2009 academic year of 39 total awarded (26 percent) to 69 for 2015–2016 of 143 awarded (48 percent). In its first year OHIP funded 22 students spanning across all five undergraduate colleges to attend NCUR and played a major role in securing the bid to host NCUR 2018 on the UCO campus. The office recently founded a Central Undergraduate Research Board (CURB) of undergraduates to further promote awareness of the RCSA program and serve as peer mentors.

Ever sensitive to the workload of faculty members and in recognition of the time investment required to mentor undergraduates in the RCSA program, a companion RCSA Grants Faculty Reassignment Program was initiated in 2014. Faculty members mentoring RCSA students may either receive a stipend based on the number of hours mentees enroll in independent study or “bank” these hours toward a class reassignment.

Transformative Learning Scholars Program.

The CURE-STEM program has recently been expanded to one at the university level that is available to all faculty members on recommendation by the department chair and dean and approval of the provost. Although only in its second semester, there are currently 10 Transformative Learning Scholars encompassing faculty members from all five undergraduate Colleges.


A key question among administrators at accessible, publically funded universities and colleges is how to sustain programs that are known to increase student success while attracting the teacher-scholar faculty members that are often needed to do so (Barthell 2012). External funding, as outlined above, is an obvious way to accomplish this goal but it requires a cost-effective means for PUIs like the University of Central Oklahoma to invest in such faculty development models. UCO’s experience demonstrates that the current system of providing modest incentives with the opportunity to excel at grantsmanship may be one effective pathway to take in accomplishing this goal.

Although the current model largely examines this at the level of federal funding, funding at the state and municipal levels can also be employed to further these efforts. For example, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education provides competitive funding for summer academies that emphasize the recruitment of high school students into various disciplines. UCO’s strategic plan emphasizes its role as a public, metropolitan university, and the connection of students to the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area through internships, capstone courses and employment opportunities may yield another such connection for student-centered activities (e.g., Barthell et al. 2014b). If funding at the federal and state levels continues to decline, these local sources of revenue will become increasingly important to sustaining institutions of higher education. Indeed, as reported by Katz and Bradley (2013, 1) the “top 100 metropolitan areas sit on only 12 percent of the nation’s land mass but are home to two-thirds of our population and generate 75 percent of our national GDP.” In addition, and as further emphasized by Steven Johnson (2010), innovations tend to occur more frequently in these areas (that include Innovation Districts within cities), the same areas that ultimately employ a disproportionately high number of college graduates. External funding models like the one presented herein may play an increasingly important role in the strategic planning of educational institutions that reside within or near metropolitan areas.  


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Barthell, J. F., C. I. Abramson, J. M. Hranitz, V. H. Gonzalez, and H. Wells. Unpublished. An international, bee-centered research for undergraduates: A decade retrospective.

Barthell, J. F., W. R. Chen, B. K. Endicott, C. A. Hughes, W. J. Radke, C. K. Simmons, and G. M. Wilson. 2013a. Encouraging and sustaining a culture of student-centered research at a predominately undergraduate institution. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 34 (1): 41–47.

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Barthell, J., B. Endicott, W. R. Chen, and C. K. Simmons. 2014a. Faculty development and student learning: A synergistic, collaborative, and fiscally sustainable approach. Paper presented at the Transforming STEM Higher Education Conference, American Association of Colleges and Universities, Atlanta, Georgia.

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We acknowledge the continuing support of administration, faculty, and staff at the University of Central Oklahoma who have developed context for this work during the last decade. These include President Don Betz and his cabinet members, Ed Cunliff, Charles Hughes, Jeff King, Evan Lemley and Bill Radke (former UCO provost and vice president for Academic Affairs). Without the support and involvement of faculty and staff, this work would have been impossible.  



About the Authors

John Barthell is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs; Wei Chen is Interim Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and the Director of CIBER; Charlotte Simmons is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs; Michael Springer is Director of the Office of High Impact Practices; and Greg Wilson is the Assistant Vice President, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.

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