Penn State receives award for commitment to student success, advising

The makers of Starfish recognized Penn State with the 2020 Hobsons Education Advances Award

The makers of Starfish recently recognized Penn State's commitment to student success. Credit: Brian Reed / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The education technology firm Hobsons recently awarded Penn State its Education Advances Award for Student Success and Advising.

Hobsons, the makers of Starfish, said Penn State beat out nearly 60 other institutions for the award. Since the University began using Starfish, a suite of academic advising and early progress reporting tools, in 2016, Hobsons said the University “has made great strides in tackling the issues of access, degree completion, student debt, and food and housing insecurity. As a result, Penn State has seen significant impact on student engagement and persistence,” according to a press release. A Hobsons video featuring interviews with Penn Staters talking about the award and the use of Starfish can be viewed here.

In accepting the award on behalf of the Starfish team and the University, David Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director for the Division of Undergraduate Studies, emphasized that what he is most honored about is that the work with Starfish represents Penn State at its finest.

“People from many offices, campuses, colleges, and other units have all contributed in meaningful ways to make this happen,” Smith said. “We have achieved much because people have all worked together as a University.”

Over the last several years, Penn State has continued to utilize Starfish more and more to help its nearly 100,000 students become more successful across the University’s 24 campuses.

Penny Carlson, assistant vice president and executive director for academic services and assessment at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses (CWC), said Starfish has “fundamentally changed the way Penn State students are supported,” and that it enables faculty, advisers and staff to act quickly and intentionally.

“We have so many resources at Penn State and navigating those resources can be challenging, especially for our first-generation learners,” Carlson said. “Starfish enhances communication and brings people and resources together in ways that makes sense for students.”

Carlson said Hobsons consultants have worked side-by-side with Commonwealth Campus academic leaders, faculty and staff to evaluate readiness and capacity to improve student outcomes. This led to a productive CWC Student Success Summit in 2019.

“As a result, campuses became more aware of our challenges and more intentional about the resources and interventions the campuses extend in support of student engagement and success.”  

Advisers depend on Starfish to track students’ progress and provide early warning flags when they begin to struggle. In the last year Penn State modified its academic difficulty and recovery policies, which included using Starfish to create and document a student’s recovery plan.

Janet Schulenberg, senior director in the Division of Undergraduate Studies, said Starfish helps to create a network around students and “reminds people from different areas of the university that we are working together with a common purpose.”

“Once we started expanding the use of Starfish beyond instructors and academic advisers, silos started to become more permeable,” she said.

Schulenberg said Starfish has provided a strong platform to make more possible the team-based approach to providing care to students feasible at campuses across the commonwealth. She explained Starfish’s functionality makes it easier to refer students to particular offices and keep track of which students have responded. This has helped units such as Penn State World Campus build a network of referrals, and Department of Career Counseling advisers or counselors reach out to students to invite them to use their services.

“This kind of proactive outreach is particularly important for students who are from populations traditionally underserved by higher education,” she said. “This kind of support is one of the key factors that can help the University address achievement gaps and increase student success across the board.”

Starfish is also a useful tool to help students connect with services such as tutoring from Penn State Learning or financial management advice from the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center. These functions have become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic as both students and staff work from home.

Hobsons reports that more than 6 million students from more than 500 institutions engage with Starfish in each academic term.

The Division of Undergraduate Studies is part of the Penn State Office of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Last Updated August 13, 2020