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A student meets with their advisor.

More students than ever are on their way to earning a degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, thanks to a network of people and an ecosystem of resources focused on helping them succeed inside and outside of the classroom.

This fall, UT hit a record 91 percent retention rate, which is the percentage of first-year students who return for their sophomore year. The metric is a key indicator of how likely students are to graduate. The national average at public four-year institutions was 75 percent in 2021, the most recent data available from the National Student Clearinghouse.

“Leaders across the country are paying attention to what we’re doing here on Rocky Top. They want to know about our innovative approach, which includes both resources for every student and specific programs for those who need it,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “The results we’ve seen have been huge for us as an institution, but they’re even bigger for our students, who are more likely to earn a degree and pursue the future they want because of the support they’re receiving.”

The improvement in retention and graduation rates—which is also going up but lags behind other indicators—is a direct result of investments the university has been making. That includes the Division of Student Success, which Plowman established in 2020 shortly after her arrival. She immediately tapped Amber Williams, with whom she worked at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to be the division’s first vice provost for student success.

Cultivating student success

The Division of Student Success works with faculty and other partners across campus, to ensure the best student experience and outcomes by supporting Volunteers’ unique strengths, focusing on their well-being, and helping to advance their academic and career goals.

Williams and her team have collaborated with campus partners to develop initiatives like Vol Success Teams—a dedicated support network that helps students achieve academic, professional, and personal goals—as well as the Veterans Impact Program and the UT Success Academy to help attract and retain a talented and diverse student body.

Williams is helping other university leaders across the country redefine student success on their own campuses, sharing her career journey and UT’s efforts to champion students with Inside Higher Ed, the ASCEND Podcast, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the 2022 Gallup at Work Summit.

“Our land-grant mission calls on us to not just provide Tennessee’s students with access to a top education, but to make sure they succeed when they get here.” Williams said. “We want our students to go to graduate with the skills and experience they need to be leaders and contributors in our workforce and our communities here in Tennessee and beyond.”

The retention rate of first-year students has climbed nearly five percentage points in the last five years—an impressive trajectory for a notoriously challenging needle to move.

“Boosting retention is a formidable challenge,” Williams said. “Achieving this progress in such a short time frame is a testament to the dedication of the Volunteer community. It underscores the commitment of every faculty and staff member on our campus to creating an environment where students are able to flourish academically and feel supported in their overall well-being.”

In one innovative program, faculty members teach one another best practices of support. The Volunteer Experience Faculty Fellows program launched this year with a group of faculty members from across the university who attend professional development events to learn about well-being pedagogy. Participants share information with colleagues and help create resources for widespread use. The division also invested in teaching development through the Thrive Summit in addition to two new programs carried out in partnership with Teaching and Learning Innovation: a faculty certificate program focused on the Volunteer experience and curriculum redesign grants.

Another campus partner, the Division of Student Life, works to foster student success through community. By providing programming on leadership development, hosting campus-wide events and ensuring that students’ basic needs are met, the division creates student-centered opportunities that contribute to a transformative experience.

Fostering students’ strengths

One tool the Division of Student Success is using to support student success initiatives is the CliftonStrengths assessment, which helps students understand, build and stretch their strengths to help foster confidence and resilience. All first-year students participate in a CliftonStrengths assessment to discover their top five natural talent themes so they can develop those talents into strengths and apply their strengths in experiences that will help them be successful. The assessment provides Vol Success Team coaches with a common language for discussing each student’s unique aspirations, challenges and opportunities and provides transformative coaching tailored to each student’s personal strengths.

In 2022, UT was one of two universities to receive the Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award, which recognizes colleges, universities and districts that “enable students to learn what they naturally do best and apply their strengths to thrive in school and all areas of their lives.”

Giving students an edge

This fall, the division launched Vol Edge. In a campus environment teeming with a multitude of experiences, the program recognizes the need to prepare for the future and seeks to instill confidence in students and empower them with the tools, knowledge and experience needed to navigate their professional journey and elevate their career self-efficacy.

Vol Edge offers a flexible array of learning and engagement activities to foster purposeful life and career readiness for students. While the program is still in its pilot phase, 95 percent of student participants have reported positive reactions. Vol Edge will launch in phases over the next three years until all stages are available in fall 2027.

Planning for the future

The division’s physical footprint is set to expand as well. The university plans to open a new facility in 2026 to house the Division of Student Success and Student Disability Services. The space will include instructional spaces designed to benefit students in high-enrollment courses.

As current programs are enhanced and perfected and new ones are launched, the university will maintain its commitment to creating a dynamic, interactive and welcoming environment for all Vols.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,

Maggie Palmer (865-974-3993,