Florida Atlantic University and University of California, Merced Receive ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation
March 04, 2024

ACE is proud to announce that Florida Atlantic University and University of California, Merced (UC Merced) are the recipients of the 2024 ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation.

The award, established in 2014, recognizes institutions that responded to higher education challenges in innovative and creative ways and achieved dramatic changes in a relatively brief period. It was presented along with a $10,000 prize today to each institution at the ACE Presidents and Chancellors Summit in Washington, DC.

“I am thrilled to be able to present this award to two outstanding institutions that have flourished in the face of adversity,” ACE President Ted Mitchell said. “University of California, Merced’s student-centered interventions and creative strategic planning have enabled the university to expand access and set it on a path for continued success. Florida Atlantic University’s use of leading-edge student programing has supported students and helped boost graduation rates, highlighting the power of innovation in higher education. Both institutions exemplify how our members use critical thinking and creativity to serve all learners.”

2024 Institutional Transformation Award winners

Left to right: Pamela Everhart, senior vice President and head of regional public affairs and community relations, Fidelity Investments; Stacy Volnick, president of Florida Atlantic University; Scott Senseney, head of relationship management, Fidelity Investments; Juan Sánchez Muñoz, chancellor of the University of California, Merced; ACE President Ted Mitchell; and Patrick Vaughan, senior vice president, managing director and higher education practice leader, Fidelity Investments. Photo by Lisa Helfert Photography.

“We are so impressed by the innovative programs developed by both Florida Atlantic University and University of California, Merced—two schools stepping up to proactively support and break down barriers to student success,” said Sangeeta Moorjani, executive vice president and head of tax-exempt business and retirement solutions at Fidelity. “These universities are tackling head-on the challenges being faced by their current and prospective students to both enroll and complete their education programs, and their efforts are truly making a difference in the lives of these students.”

ACE invited nominations and applications for the award from any U.S. college or university eligible for ACE membership. Applications were divided into two categories: one for institutions with student populations of 12,001 and more (Florida Atlantic), and another for institutions with student populations of up to 12,000 (UC Merced).

Florida Atlantic, one of the nation’s most diverse public institutions, specializes in lifting up traditionally underserved students. In 2014, Florida Atlantic determined that it needed to take targeted action to increase its retention and graduation rates, and it set a goal to break down barriers for first-year students in order to raise these metrics.

With this goal in mind, Florida Atlantic formed groups to lead a new approach called team-based analytics, in which people at different levels and roles within the university came together to develop interventions and analyze trends. The groups used a variety of methods and tools to design, make, and track student-centered interventions constructed to promote progression and degree completion; improve curricula frameworks; and issue targeted financial assistance.

Using findings from this approach, Florida Atlantic launched targeted programs. The university designed and issued plans of study for bachelor’s programs, with each student adopting a “Flight Plan”—a semester-by-semester map of classes, along with additional academic milestones—and created a streamlined advising system where each student received support from a three-person team. Florida Atlantic also refined its curricula to offer greater flexibility to students and created the Launch Scholarship, a targeted award to assist students in remaining enrolled. Florida Atlantic kept equity top of mind through these interventions, using this process as an opportunity to become an even more diverse institution.

Today, Florida Atlantic’s four-year graduation rate is 50 percent, more than double what it was when it embarked on this plan, with students of color and Pell Grant-eligible students outpacing the university’s overall graduation rate. By leveraging team-based analytics, nearly 3,000 students graduated in the past five years who otherwise would not have finished. Team-based analytics is now a permanent fixture at the university and will be the backbone of its work to support students going forward.

“We are honored to receive the ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation, as it affirms Florida Atlantic’s unwavering commitment to access, excellence, and innovation,” said FAU President Stacy Volnick. “This award highlights the outstanding work of our faculty, staff, and institutional leaders who have established Florida Atlantic as a powerhouse for transformational student impact. We are incredibly proud to be recognized as a leader in higher education that is dedicated to improving outcomes for all its students.”

Since opening to undergraduates in 2005, UC Merced has worked to expand access for California students, especially students in the Central Valley. Over the years the university has worked to identify and overcome barriers that impede the institution’s ability to expand access, especially to Pell-eligible, first-generation, Hispanic, and Black students.

After thoughtful campus-wide discussion, UC Merced confronted these threats directly beginning in 2020 by designing and implementing its first-ever strategic plan to advance and broaden student success and access; generate world-class research that benefits students and the community; and embody equity, justice, and inclusive excellence. To begin meeting those goals, UC Merced developed a variety of dynamic and responsive programs, including establishing local high school partnerships, instilling transfer student supports and pathways, and launching a degree completion program for stop-outs, among other initiatives.

The university had earlier embarked on an ambitious construction program to expand the institution and sustain growth, completing the Merced 2020 Project, a $1.2 billion public-private partnership that doubled the physical footprint of its campus. The following year, UC Merced opened the silent phase of its first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign to propel growth, setting an initial goal of raising $100 million by 2030.

The success of UC Merced’s strategic plan can be felt throughout the campus. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, enrollment either sustained or grew every year since 2020. Through 2022, the number of students graduating with debt decreased by 34 percent and the number of doctoral degrees awarded increased by about 70 percent. In 2023, 64 percent of UC Merced’s undergraduate student population was first-generation and 59 percent was Pell-eligible.

Additionally, the university responded to the comprehensive campaign’s initial success by elevating its goal to $200 million by 2030, with $98.5 million raised by the end of 2023.

“As the first U.S. research university built in the 21st century, we have had the opportunity to be purposive and thoughtful about a mission that speaks to the students of today and the global challenges we face,” said UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz. “We deliver a world-class education in an environment that responds nimbly to the needs of current and future students, and we are proud of the successful students we have helped to launch on their lifelong journeys.”

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