State System’s ‘Student Success Network’ lives up to its name


warren anderson

Warren Anderson, Slippery Rock University associate provost for student success, says helping students’ succeed is everyone’s responsibility.

Nov. 24, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Nothing should matter more to a college or university than ensuring its students succeed--academically and in their lives.

Virtually every institution offers an array of programs and services designed to help students achieve that success, including summer learning programs, first-year experiences, early warning systems to identify students who might be struggling--academically and socially--with the transition to college, tutoring centers and peer mentoring.

The programs, while available to all students, often are geared toward underrepresented minority students and those from low-income backgrounds--frequently first-generation college students whose families have no prior collegiate experience.

There's more to it, though, than just making the programs and services available.

"It's not just a program; it's a personal connection you have to have with students," said Daniel Engstrom, associate provost and associate vice president of academic success at California University of Pennsylvania.

Engstrom is co-chair of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education's Student Success Network, a coordinated effort to develop and implement initiatives designed to improve students' chances of success. The network was assembled more than a year ago by the Office of the Chancellor and comprises campus leaders who are responsible for their university's student retention efforts.

State System universities have been working individually for years to boost both retention and graduation rates--two of the standards typically used to measure student success. Despite the progress made, the stark reality remains: there is a significant gap between graduation rates of both minority students and those with low socio-economic status and their peers.

"By creating the Student Success Network, the State System is taking a broad-based approach in its efforts to shrink that gap, acknowledging that in order for students to have the best opportunity to succeed, not only must they have access to a strong network of academic support services, they also must be surrounded by a supportive and inclusive campus community," said Chancellor Frank Brogan.

The network is a natural outgrowth and expansion of earlier efforts to promote "diversity, inclusiveness and multiculturalism" across the System. It is focused on programs that have delivered results in first-year retention, four-year progress/persistence and graduation rates, especially for underrepresented minorities and students with low socio-economic status.

The network brings together campus officials who are responsible for student retention so they can share what works best at their universities, combine their resources and develop even more effective strategies and services for students.

The campus representatives are relying, in part, on the State System's previously completed "Equity Scorecard" that was developed in partnership with the University of Southern California several years ago to measure key areas related to student success, according to Victoria Sanders, State System assistant vice chancellor, who helps oversee the group. The scorecard also helped the System to identify specific areas of concern that need to be addressed, Sanders said.

The equity scorecard demonstrated the importance of breaking down data and using it to determine how effective--or ineffective--a program really is, according to Engstrom. For example, Cal U. has offered a successful peer-mentoring program for years, but it was not until the scorecard was developed that the university could quantify how important the program could be to student retention, especially within certain student groups.

"We found out that about 55 percent of our African-American students participated in the program," Engstrom said. "Those students had an 85 percent retention rate; for those who didn't participate in the program, the retention rate was 65 percent. That's huge. We know now that we need to do a better job of recruiting African-American students into the program. We would have never known that without the scorecard."

The scorecard will continue to be used by the universities as they move forward in areas where work remains to be done, especially in closing the gaps in access, retention and graduation.

Meanwhile, other network members shared some of their campuses' ongoing efforts while attending a recent meeting in Harrisburg.

Fai Howard from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania discussed an early warning program that quickly identifies and provides assistance to students who are having academic difficulties. William Redmond of Millersville University of Pennsylvania talked about separate programs designed to help primarily African-American and Latino men and women successfully make the transition from high school to college.

Perhaps the students who participate in the programs themselves are the best spokespersons for them, according to Sarah Stokely from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Many of those students describe their experience with activities such as those provided through the university's summer bridge program as "transformative," Stokely said.

Several members talked about the importance of involving the entire campus community in the effort, regardless of the nature of the program or their specific job responsibility.

"The message that we share is that everyone has to be involved in student success, every single day; there are no days off," said Warren Anderson, associate provost for student success at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. 

Diversity initiatives are integral to the State System's strategic plan. Adopted by the Board of Governors in January 2014, the plan includes goals designed specifically to ensure low-income and underrepresented minority students have greater access to higher education and that more of them succeed--through graduation--once they enroll.

Along with student retention and graduation rates, student, faculty and staff diversity have been among the key metrics the State System has measured as part of its more than decade-old, nationally recognized performance funding program that encourages and rewards the universities for meeting specific standards.

One example of how the State System universities are seeking for foster greater diversity among their faculty is their participation in the Southern Regional Education Board's Doctoral Scholars Program, which works to recruit and help develop minority Ph.D. students who are seeking careers as faculty on college campuses.

The program provides multiple layers of support, including financial assistance, academic/research funding, career counseling, a scholar directory for networking and recruiting and continued early career support. A number of current State System faculty were recruited through this program.

"We now have three former scholars in permanent faculty positions," said Irvin Wright from Bloomsburg University. "It's working out very well."

MEDIA CONTACT: Kenn Marshall | 717.720.4045 |