Board of Trustees

Barron touts success of Penn State summer jump-start program

Penn State President Eric Barron pointed to successful pilot program to increase student success with summer jump-start.
Penn State President Eric Barron pointed to successful pilot program to increase student success with summer jump-start. Centre Daily Times, file

How much easier would your first year or two of college be with a little helping hand?

Penn State wanted to see. New numbers show a little help really helps.

In January 2015, President Eric Barron sat down with the Centre Daily Times to talk about plans to have every student get the most out of their time at Penn State, while still not spending more than four years on campus.

Part of that was a new plan. What if you didn’t just accept kids from low-income backgrounds? What if you gave them the support they needed to try to succeed? That was the idea behind Pathway to Success: Summer Start.

PaSSS was piloted in 2015, giving a select group of students a boost. Instead of jumping into the academic pool with their peers in the fall, they started with a scholarship for six credits over the summer. They had peer mentors and worked on campus to make more money without having to try to schedule school around a retail or fast food job that might not be as understanding about class demands. They got money for books and fees.

Then they would pass on the help as they participated in their second year, becoming mentors to a new crop of freshmen.

Barron had high hopes for the program. His frequent response to comments about Penn State’s comparatively high tuition — still one of the highest in the Big Ten and among U.S. public universities despite a full freeze in 2015 and a historically low increase at some campuses and frozen pricetags at others in 2016 — is that there is no tuition increase as expensive as a fifth year for a four-year degree.

On Friday, he showed his board of trustees the first results.

In 2015, the 130 students who started on seven campuses showed 100 percent of them making it to their fall semester, and 94.6 percent of them re-enrolling for the spring 2016 term. In fall 2016, 83.9 percent of them were still Penn Staters, and in spring 2017, they didn’t just keep all 109 from the previous semester, but they got back one who had stepped away, upping to 84.6 percent or 110 students.

Losing 15 percent might not seem like something to cheer about, but if you look at the 980 students who didn’t participate in the pilot program, you see them fall to just 760, or 77.6 percent by January 2017.

U.S. News and World Report says up to a third of freshmen nationwide don’t re-enroll for their sophomore year.

But what about grades? The program shows a difference in GPA, too, with PaSSS students posting an average 2.77 by the end of fall 2016 compared to a 2.7 for non-PaSSS.

Students are also about 10 credits ahead of their peers, 7 percent less likely to drop a class and 14 percent more likely to take a higher-level math class.

“It’s also proving to be less expensive than we had thought,” said Barron, who had feared in 2016 that Penn State wouldn’t be able to continue the program due to the state budget stalemate.

“If they don’t drop out, we’re collecting their tuition dollars,” he said.

Barron wants to scale the project up, taking it from the 375 first-year students enrolled in summer 2017 to 1,000.

“These pilots work,” he said. “We can have a profound impact on student success.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce