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University of Utah included in University Innovation Alliance project to help students succeed in critical college courses

The group of 15 public research institutions have been awarded $3.5 million to diagnose and address high dropout and failure rates in college gateway courses.

The University Innovation Alliance, the multi-university laboratory working to improve student success, today announced a $3.5 million grant led by Ascendium in support of an ambitious project to diagnose and address high DFW (drop, withdraw, or fail) rates, especially for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

“Long before COVID-19 disrupted students’ education, we discovered students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are more likely to earn poor grades in or withdraw from courses required for progression toward their degrees. As our institutions seek to help students recover academically from the pandemic, we know we have to address this endemic barrier,” said Bridget Burns, CEO, University Innovation Alliance. “With support from Ascendium and the Frederick A. DeLuca Foundation, we will test and build scalable solutions across the nation’s largest research universities to ensure equitable course progression and degree outcomes for all students.” 

According to data analytics firm EAB, one percent of all courses — often large classes with multiple sections — are responsible for more than 30 percent of all DFWs. Many of these courses are “gateway courses,” classes required for students to progress through their chosen major and can be a major barrier to student persistence and graduation.

“At Ascendium, our mission is to address inequities in postsecondary education outcomes by exploring, testing and scaling promising new solutions,” said Keith Witham, director, education grantmaking at Ascendium. “With their work around completion grants, proactive advising and predictive analytics, the UIA institutions have long been field leaders in proactively addressing barriers to improve student success. We are pleased to support the UIA’s latest initiative that could have promising and scalable impact across higher education.”

The two-and-a-half year, multi-campus project will scale and test recent insights from UIA founding member Georgia State University, which launched its Accelerator Academy in 2020 to address significant pandemic-driven increases in DFW rates. At least 1,000 students at member institutions will participate in the initial pilot. More than 170,000 students of color and 130,000 students from low-income backgrounds across member institutions stand to benefit from the impact of this project.

The UIA will work with their member institutions to identify first-year gateway courses with high numbers of DFW grades, then work to invite currently enrolled students – and in some cases, work to re-enroll students that have dropped out – to retake courses at a subsidized cost and with a small incentive grant. Students will receive supplemental instruction, group tutoring and academic coaches to ensure they succeed in their second attempt at a class.

Following the UIA model, the project also will result in the creation of an open source playbook — similar to prior projects on completion grants, college-to-career transitions and proactive academic advising — designed to help institutions identify and address DFW bottlenecks and scale proven accelerator models to help students stay on track after unsuccessful course experiences. Since the Alliance launched in 2013, testing and scaling innovative student success interventions has helped UIA members increase the number of collective bachelor’s degrees they award annually by 32%, the number of annual degrees awarded to graduates of color by 93%, and the number of annual degrees to low-income graduates by 50%.

About the University Innovation Alliance: The University Innovation Alliance is a national consortium of large public research universities spanning the geographic, economic and social diversity of our country. Together, we are working to regain America’s economic competitive edge by helping more students graduate with a high-quality and affordable education. We do this by broadening participation in higher education and implementing proven programs that significantly improve graduation rates for all students regardless of socioeconomic background. The Alliance’s 15 current members are Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, North Carolina A&T State University, The Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, University of California, Riverside, University of Central Florida, University of Colorado Denver, University of Illinois Chicago, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, University of Utah and Virginia Commonwealth University. For more information, visit

About Ascendium: Ascendium Education Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium’s work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all. For more information, visit