When University of Chicago findings published in 2014 showed that only 14% of Chicago public school freshmen went on to earn four-year college degrees, National Louis University made changing that reality an institutional mission. 

Although NLU, founded in 1886 as a groundbreaking college of education, then served mainly part-time adult learners in various graduate and undergraduate programs, its heritage of innovation and problem solving in education uniquely positioned it to address the needs of young people graduating from high school with GPAs above 2.0. Mostly underrepresented minority students, they also faced significant financial hurdles; many were the first in their families to pursue a college degree.  

In 2015, NLU began its “Pathways” pilot program with 85 nonresidential undergraduate students. In 2018, it created the Undergraduate College, serving nearly 3000 students in undergrad programs in business, management, and behavioral sciences formerly housed in NLU’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement, and early childhood and elementary education programs from NLU’s National College of Education. Other programs, such as computer science, were added based on market analysis of career opportunities and student interest. Pathways students currently comprise approximately 50% of the Undergraduate College (it also serves its historically online and evening population of adult students transferring from other institutions).

To improve accessibility, undergraduate tuition for its full-time day program is set at approximately $10,000/year, so students receiving full federal and state financial aid have zero out-of-pocket cost. Those graduating high school with a GPA of at least 2.0 are guaranteed admission. Since students attend classes only two days a week and complete other coursework online, they can hold jobs to provide for living expenses. 

A seamlessly integrated data system undergirds NLU’s intensive support to help underprepared students earn a bachelor’s degree and move into a career. Success Coaches, meeting individually with students throughout the year, monitor class attendance and coursework to identify those who need extra help or encouragement. For each cohort of 100-125 students, a team of faculty members and Success Coaches meets regularly to discuss student progress and engage in case management to address academic and social-emotional needs. In addition, Career Coaches track and encourage student progress in identified career preparation milestones, such as attending job fairs, developing resumes, or doing internships.

The NLU Undergraduate College builds on successful collaborations and robust data sharing with both the secondary school system and with regional employers. An enrollment and outreach team works with district and charter school counselor networks and other nonprofits to help high school students explore their options, and supports those who select NLU through the enrollment and orientation process. A dedicated Career Bridge team cultivates relationships with employers, supports required credit-bearing career readiness coursework that is aligned with employer expectations, and helps students to secure internship and job placements. 

Now in its fifth year, the Undergraduate College’s Pathways  program has attained financial sustainability  with revenues from the $10,000/year student tuition fully covering operating costs while maintaining class sizes at 25-30. How is this possible? A tight sequence of courses for each major enables optimal use of space at each campus and maximizes class size. Full-time faculty have no research expectations and are instead focused on teaching excellence, meaning all of their time is fully engaged in teaching students or coaching fellow faculty. Co-curricular activities are streamlined (e.g., no football stadium) and focused on professional development and community building. And robust data tools provide early indicators that help faculty and staff efficiently focus their efforts where the most support is needed.  National Louis University is a compelling example of a historic institution of higher learning that has taken on the challenge of bridging the educational attainment gap in its local context.


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Data-Informed Teaching Excellence: College Classrooms That Work for Underrepresented Students

Data-driven program design in higher ed can support high-impact teaching practices. The Pathways program at National Louis University approaches data with the purpose of supporting teaching excellence.


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How to Close the Degree Attainment Gap? Data, Dedication, and Collaboration

Data-Driven Student Success: A Case Study from the First Three Years of National Louis University’s Pathways Program.

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Focus of Organization's Work

NLU’s mission is to provide a rigorous, technology-enhanced, affordable college education in a supportive environment that respects diversity, in order to help all students meet and surpass their personal, academic, and career goals.

Personnel Required

In 2020, the Undergraduate College has about 50 academic faculty members and 50 administrative and student support staff. Support teams integral to the model include the following:

~ The enrollment & outreach team works with high school students exploring college options and supports NLU applicants through enrollment and orientation.

~ The student success coaches each have a caseload of students, serving as academic advisor, advocate, and coordinator of academic and social-emotional interventions.

~ The analytics team supports faculty, staff, and students through access to relevant and timely data; tools and reports for data collection and use; and building data capacity.

~ The Instructional Support Leads (ISLs) coach faculty and lead professional development in utilizing instructional best practices, including culturally responsive pedagogy, data-driven instruction, relationship building, etc.

~ The Career Bridge team includes employer relations managers who develop relationships with organizations and connect students to internship and employment opportunities; and career advisors who support their career searches.

Population Served

The NLU Undergraduate College Pathways program primarily serves first-time college students graduating from the Chicago public school system. The incoming Pathways class of nearly 2000 students had an average high school GPA of 2.7, average ACT score of 17, and average SAT of score of 864. In 2018-19, 83% of Pathways students were Pell Grant-eligible and 80% were first-generation college students; 73% identified as Latinx and 17% as African American. (The Undergraduate College also serves adult transfer students. primarily evening and online.)

Program Accessibility and Support

To improve accessibility for first-time, full-time recent high school graduates, the program provides:

~ annual tuition cap of $10,000, which can mean zero out-of-pocket expense for students qualifying for full federal and state aid

~ guaranteed admission for students graduating high school with a 2.0 GPA or higher

~ schedule flexibility, consistency, and dependability; students attend classes only two days a week, so they can work part-time

To position students for degree attainment and post-college success, the curriculum features:

~ Personalized, flipped, adaptive instructional model leveraging technology and small class sizes

~ Clear and well-rounded pathway to a degree

~ Embedded career preparation through required curriculum, work-based learning, and career coaching

~ High-touch, supportive environment, with a success coach for every student and collaborative teams of instructors and staff using data to address each student’s needs

Current Outcomes

Early indicators of success show Pathways students outperforming benchmarks of similar Chicago students at other colleges based on Year 1-2 student retention (66% Pathways vs. 53% of comparable CPS students) and projections to outperform benchmarks for 6-year graduation rates with our first cohort in 2021.

Innovative Features

Student Success Collaboration structure
Modeled after secondary education grade-level teams, success coaches and instructors collaboratively support cohorts of 100-125 students. An innovation in higher education, teams meet regularly to discuss students’ progress, perform academic case management, and coordinate interventions for individual students, using a data system (EAB Navigate) that captures student progress reports, individualized alerts, and instructor/coach follow-ups. 

Instructional teams and reporting
Faculty meet in course/department teams to review student success data (attendance, grades, and engagement with assignments and online discussions). Data is updated daily on a user-friendly web-based platform. Faculty and staff also engage in quarterly deep-dives on indicators and academic outcomes.

Career preparation model
In the general education sequence (first two years), students select a track and begin exploring related career options in career development courses. In the junior and senior years, each major course sequence includes a career-focused service project and an internship. A tracking system provides career advisors and coaches with real-time data on students’ progress on required annual career milestones.

Organizational Success Features

Maintaining a mission-driven culture across the entire Undergraduate College team
Faculty and staff must take ownership and responsibility for students’ success, and be transparent about their own practices to drive improvement. Creating and maintaining a culture that facilitates this often difficult and uncomfortable work requires frequent reinforcement of our core vision by continually engaging with it in weekly success collaborations, monthly strategy sessions, and quarterly all-team meetings.

Being responsive to evolving needs and conditions requires open channels for feedback, from students, faculty, staff, partners, and employers. This often involves committing additional resources to collect and analyze data related to strategies, and leads to important course corrections, ranging from the courses offered to the amount of social space on campus.

Critical Components

Innovation in higher education across student success, instruction and career preparation required: 

~ Dedicated staff/faculty taking on unique responsibilities, whether by re-envisioning roles or hiring new positions: Student Success coaches, faculty collaboration leads, analytics staff, career advisors, and department chairs/content team leads 

~ Data system: scalable solutions to track, visualize, and report on program inputs and outcomes

~ Buy-in: a culture of support and a process that helps faculty serve students more effectively in the long run

~ Best practices: documenting procedures and interventions to keep faculty and staff from reinventing the wheel every time a student struggles


The Pathways Program at National Louis University was launched in fall 2015 as a two-year pilot program, including creation of manual tools and processes to support student success. As the program scaled, we began investigating and building scalable digital solutions and systems, automating end-user reporting as much as possible. The Undergraduate College was launched in fall 2018, and student success  systems and processes were gradually institutionalized through documentation of best practices. 

Overcoming Challenges

Maintain a spirit of collaboration and frequent communication. In an innovative and fast-changing environment, team members need to stay in frequent contact to make sure their efforts are aligned.

Continually examine results. Our resources are too constrained to pursue every initiative or strategy we might wish to, so it is essential to prioritize. Prioritizing well requires making data-informed judgments on how to use resources.

Lessons Learned

Make a sustained effort to take plan, implement, and evaluate with the student in mind.

Reinforce and re-engage with your mission, vision, and strategy-level goals frequently at all levels.

Take a user-centered design approach: whether from the standpoint of students when planning our undergraduate experience (for example, having classes only two days a week so students can work part-time), or from that of instructors, coaches, and other end users when designing data systems. 

Integrate data into your approach, not just retrospectively to analyze the past, but proactively to see what is happening right now.

Future Goals

The undergraduate college at NLU aims to be a national leader in closing the opportunity gap in bachelor’s degree attainment and employment. Our graduates will achieve upward mobility, leading to positive outcomes for themselves, their families, and communities.

In the next 5 years, we aim to exceed local and national benchmarks for our target population with an 80% Year 1-2 retention, 43% 6-year graduation rate, and 80% of graduates securing meaningful, sustainable employment or attending graduate school. 

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