Editor’s note: Vermont by Degrees is an ongoing series of commentaries by leaders in higher education that explores the challenges and innovations at schools across Vermont.

As my time serving as the University of Vermont’s 26th president begins drawing to a close, I am reflecting on the priorities that have guided this remarkable university and informed our strategic decisions across campus.

In October 2012, at my installation, I challenged the UVM community to raise our expectations and aspirations so that, together, we would create an academic environment of the highest quality — for our students, for our faculty and staff, for the future of Vermont, and beyond. In my remarks, I articulated four pathways to success — all involving investments in people — which became the strategic action plan adopted by the board of trustees.

That plan has informed every leadership decision and our collective efforts as we endeavor to deliver the promise of a first-rate university education to each UVM student, with a focus on the quality of the educational engagement.

The first strategic action goal has been centered on affordability, making sure that all of our talented students — especially those from Vermont — have the financial support to realize their ambitions of studying here, and to persist and succeed in graduating in four years. Another goal called for creating a world-class learning environment and experience for the 21st century, both in terms of facilities and infrastructure and in recruiting talent and fostering success for our students. This distinctive environment supports the research mandate of our university, with new state-of-the-art facilities and learning spaces that energize, nurture and support the discovery and understanding of new knowledge. Our social contract as a public, land-grant university comes alive as we work together and across disciplines to devise solutions to the very pressing and urgent issues of our day.

Access to college must not be determined finitely by family resources. All students must have the opportunity to achieve their very best in order to make the investment in education a successful proposition for students, for families and for the public good. Our times require bold initiatives and collaboration through a collective approach with peer institutions to share best practices in increasing access to college education, advancing educational quality and supporting students to achieve success in reaching their goals. To that end, leaders from public universities across the country have united in several ambitious efforts to share tactics that have helped them attract, retain and graduate students — including first-generation students and students from diverse backgrounds. One of those collective strategies spearheaded by the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU) brings together 130 public universities and university systems toward the purposeful goals of increasing college access, closing the achievement gap and awarding hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025.

Flowing from this collective effort, two UVM initiatives for student success are being shared with a cluster of nine northeastern universities. The new Catamount Scholarship Commitment, which is bringing more limited-income Vermonters to UVM, has realized tremendous success in its short life, increasing enrollment of eligible students in its first year (FY18) by 27 percent. In addition to comprehensive financial aid, the program also provides mentors, workshops and other resources to assist students in succeeding.

Toward our important goals of improving student retention and four-year graduation rates, a new approach to advising has been implemented recently at UVM. This student-centric management system utilizes a software framework to incorporate both academic services and student services, ultimately integrating all of the ways a student engages in academic and campus life. This personalized program connects academic advisors with the Career Center, Student Accessibility Services, the Office of International Education, and Student Life advisors — virtually all areas of life on campus — giving each student targeted and customized support toward academic success and personal achievement at UVM. We look forward to sharing this initiative with our peers as well.

Higher education is vital in shaping a productive, hopeful and equitable future for this generation of students and others to come. In laying the foundation and building a culture for the future of higher education, we must provide the facilities, the infrastructure, the inspiration and the resources for our students to thrive and succeed. At UVM, we are committed to building and maintaining this new quality-centered foundation. We also are working with our public-university peers to scale efforts that make access and success available to every deserving student. At the end of the educational journey, students should gain a real advantage in life by our focus on improving educational quality, knowledge, experiences and skills; by instilling an expectation that students will graduate on time; and by controlling the cost of attendance and completion.

I look forward to seeing these initiatives bear fruit into the future as a result of our efforts and investments over the past seven years.

Tom Sullivan became the 26th president of the University of Vermont in July 2012.

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Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.

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