Campus leader helps more students cross the stage
Every time Blanche Hughes brought home a great report card from Constitution Elementary School in Lexington, Ky. – which was every time – her parents and family friends showered her with praise. Each adult gave her a dime. The encouragement made an impression on a black girl who attended a segregated school in a Southern city, where racial discrimination was still codified by Jim Crow laws.
“My parents and community embraced me and instilled in me hope and optimism,” Hughes, a 63-year-old University leader, told the crowd at a campus rally supporting diversity last spring. “I was told if I did well in school, I could help change the world.”
In her childhood experience was the germ of an idea that would take root and grow to improve public higher education across the country: that lessons and support gained outside the classroom – from the community encircling the academic core – help forge a student’s learning and growth. Indeed, that broader community, and the self-discovery, resiliency, and scholarly skills it inspires, is often exactly what gets a student from blackboard to mortarboard.
Hughes turned the concept into a career and, in turn, has influenced the educational experiences of countless students at Colorado State University. Since 2007, she has served as vice president for student affairs at CSU and oversees 15 programs, 800 employees, and a $130 million annual budget that provide a wide range of support services and cocurricular activities to better recruit, retain, and graduate students.
The Division of Student Affairs is central to a campuswide Student Success Initiative that has become a national model for improving time to graduation and closing graduation gaps based on income, race, and family education. In Summer 2018, CSU reached a milestone: 71 percent of its students who started full time in Fall 2012 had earned their bachelor’s degrees within six years of arrival – an all-time high. That compares to an average six-year graduation rate of 59 percent at other four-year institutions nationwide. Since the Student Success Initiative launched in 2007, CSU’s six-year graduation rate has improved by nearly 10 points, with a campuswide goal of 80 percent in sight. Its four- and five-year graduation rates have also broken records, and stubborn graduation gaps based on socioeconomic factors have narrowed.
Hughes has encouraged these gains through collaboration and a focus on student needs, said Rick Miranda, CSU provost and executive vice president. “Student Affairs doesn’t just talk about supporting students, but supporting students in their academic pursuits. That’s been a hallmark of her leadership, and we’ve made a quantum level of advancement with that approach,” he said.
Other research universities have noticed: The Reinvention Collaborative, a national group that promotes progress in undergraduate education, recently established the Lamborn-Hughes Institute, named for Hughes and her retired colleague Alan Lamborn. The institute will assist other university teams in devising collaborative strategies for student success, much as CSU has done.
Hughes herself provides a model of achievement. She was a first-generation student who earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education at a private liberal arts school in Indiana. She worked for a few years, then decided to pursue graduate education. As a standout scholar, Hughes had offers to attend elite institutions, including Harvard University; she opted for Colorado State because the community was a better fit for her and her young family. Here, she earned a master’s degree in student affairs administration in 1984 and a doctorate in sociology in 1995. She has worked most of her 35-year career at Colorado State, mainly in student affairs leadership.
“Education really transformed my life,” Hughes said. “I didn’t grow up looking in the mirror saying, ‘Blanche, you are going to be a vice president at a major research university.’ I didn’t know those things existed. Going to college opened up all the possibilities of what I could be and do.”