Student Success: Who is Responsible for Student Success?

At the Quality Advocates session on December 4, 2009, Robert Pangborn, Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education led a panel to discuss who is responsible for student success at Penn State and how that responsibility is shared by students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders. panelThe panelists included: Michael Dooris, Director of Planning Research and Assessment, Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment; Melissa Kunes, Director of Student Aid Programs; Jean Landa Pytel, Assistant Dean of Student Services, College of Engineering; and Eric White, Executive Director of Division of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Dean of Advising.

What expectations do we have of the students and of other stakeholders in the University? For instance, the University Faculty Senate defines the role of faculty as being consultative as opposed to having approval authority over student actions.

Robert Pangborn
Ultimately, the panelists suggested, student success is the student's responsibility, but Penn State must fulfill its obligation to students by providing them with the information, tools, abilities, and resources they require to be successful. In the view of the panelists, this requires units from across the University collaborating with each other, faculty and staff communicating clearly with students about expectations and resources, the University using data and analysis to identify barriers to student success, and continually finding ways to improve processes that facilitate student success.

In order to be successful, students must understand what will be expected of them in their time at the University and what resources they have available to them. Kunes described how the Office of Student Aid (OSA) educates students about the cost of their education, the financial aid resources available to them, and the consequences of making poor financial decisions. According to Kunes, students with good financial plans at the start of their education tend to be more successful.It is the student who is ultimately responsible for their own success. However, we, as representatives of the institution, are responsible for providing them with the tools they need to make that success happen.

Melissa Kunes
This is important because with a worsening economy, financial hardship is affecting more students: 75 percent of undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, up from 66 percent ten years ago. To help students be successful and make sound financial decisions, OSA provides students with financial aid information throughout their time at Penn State, starting with the time they apply. The Office counsels students on options such as loans, the availability of work study, the connection between academic success and their ability to receive aid, and the financial consequences of dropping classes or withdrawing from Penn State.

Landa Pytel pointed out that academic success is only half of a student's education at Penn State. Other learning and skills come from activities and opportunities outside of the classroom. Successful students also need to learn how to be organized, well-informed, self-sufficient, and manage their time well. With help from faculty and staff, students can learn how to be problem solvers and become responsible for their success. Some of the ways Penn State has encouraged this is by educating faculty about the importance of advising, making information easily accessible and organized, and improving the entrance to major process.We have to go under the assumption that all the students who are here have the academic ability to succeed.

Jean Landa Pytel
As an area for improvement, Landa Pytel pointed to the possibility of adapting the University's workflow system to academic processes for faculty.

Collaboration among faculty and staff, curricular and co-curricular programs, and diverse units and programs across the University is key to student success. Kunes gave the example of students who do not pay their bills. The Office of Student Aid will work with units such as Housing, academic areas, and the Registrar's Office to ensure that students know they will not receive grades for coursework, can not apply for transcripts, and may not be able to have campus housing if they have unpaid balances. Another area where faculty and staff collaborate is in advising. White cited much research that has shown advising plays a large role in the success of students. The information out there related to advising is overwhelming . . . How you codify it, how you put it together, how you make it available to the people who need it is one of our biggest challenges. One of our attempts at this is a site called advising@psu.

Eric White
According to White, Penn State's advising structure is unique in that it is not prescriptive, but is based on a Faculty Senate policy that provides guidelines for how academic units can advise students. Tools for advising that have been developed, such as eLion, the degree audit, the early progress report system, and applications that allow students to explore majors, enable students, faculty and staff to access information easily.

The University has been able to identify barriers to student success through research devoted to uncovering some of the problem areas students face in achieving their goals. Change of assignment (COA) is one area where the University has focused. Dooris presented information on the drop in grades that students experience when they change location. (View slides). audienceStudents who spend two years at another campus and then change assignment to University Park show an average half-point drop in their semester gpa during their first semester at University Park. In subsequent semesters, these students are able to increase their average grade point averages, but their grades never return to their pre-UP levels. . . . there is a good research base for believing that we NEED to do better and we CAN do better to promote both participation and success.

Mike Dooris
In the long run, COA students are able to graduate at similar, though slightly lower, rates as other students. Dooris cited affordability as another area which the University has identified as a barrier to student success. Penn State research has shown that students with comparable academic skills are less likely to graduate when they are from lower-income families.

Pangborn commented that as a result of this and similar analyses, Penn State is implementing programs to make the transition easier for students. This fall, Undergraduate Education had the first separate orientation for COA students at University Park, and in April 2010, the University will have a one-day program for students changing assignment. In addition, next summer, COA students may take advantage of summer programs to ease the transition to the University Park campus and a committee has been charged to look at other ways to improve programs and services to students experiencing transitions.

Questions from the participants related to how many students received private loans, whether faculty emphasis on research activities limits time available for advising, and how the timing of admission and financial aid packages might affect student success.

Research on advising and student success

Light, Richard J. (2001). Making the most of college: students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pascarella, Ernest T. and Patrick T. Terenzini. (2005). How college affects students. vol. 2, A third decade of research. Edition: 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Washington, DC: Education Advisory Board, 2009. "Meeting student demand for high-touch advising: strategies and implementation tools for elevating the student experience."

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

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