New summer program for students offers 'Pathway to Success'

Starting this summer, Penn State is piloting a program designed to provide freshmen at seven campuses the opportunity to earn scholarships while taking classes, working and developing a support network. Called "Pathway to Success: Summer Start Program" or PaSSS, the program is aimed at providing financial and educational support to students, while at the same time helping them graduate on time.

David Christiansen, associate vice president for Commonwealth Campuses, said PaSSS was designed to ease students' transition from high school to college by offering a support network that will help them get off to a successful start. For the nearly 40 percent of students who are the first in their family to attend college, the first year at Penn State can be especially challenging.

"It's important for students to get through college on a timely basis, to make academic progress throughout the year," Christiansen said. "Often students run into stumbling blocks. We want to remove those stumbling blocks, and provide the students with opportunities to get ahead."

Christiansen said the program is primarily aimed at students who are either low-income, from the first generation in their families to attend college, or from underrepresented groups and are therefore most likely to drop out. Through the combination of an early summer start on class credits, scholarship support, a job, peer mentoring and a special academic adviser, the program is aimed at keeping those students on track.

"We think this is an opportunity for students to get their feet wet, to get individual attention and to make the rush of activity in the fall easier to deal with," Christiansen said.

PaSSS is being piloted at seven campuses: Penn State Beaver and Shenango (paired together), Penn State Berks, Penn State Brandywine, Penn State Fayette, Penn State Hazleton and Penn State Schuylkill. It is open to a total of 180 students in the first year - as many as 30 at each campus. While there are variations in how each campus is implementing the program, there are key elements at all the locations:

  • PaSSS targets a small group of students, who are selected and contacted about participating.
  • Students are paired with a peer mentor the first summer. The next year, the participants become the mentors to the incoming students.
  • Students work on campus or in the community each summer to earn extra money while making friends and contacts.
  • Students take up to six credits the first summer, and 12 credits the second summer.
  • Students receive a $250 per credit scholarship each summer (up to $1,500 the first summer and $3,000 the second) to help defray the cost of tuition.
  • Students also receive a $400 stipend to pay for books and fees.

Carey McDougall, director of academic affairs at Penn State Beaver, said the classes and the students' employment are both key components of the program. The jobs — in places such as the library, Academic Affairs office, Learning Center, advising, Housing and Food Services, Athletics and maintenance — not only mean extra money for the students, but also a chance to make lasting connections.

"Through the job and really small classes, they'll have made contacts and have mentors and a support system and feel like they really belong here," McDougall said. "The goal of this program is for them to have a successful experience, get their foot in the door and start where they need to start."

Penn State Beaver is paired with Penn State Shenango, which serves many nontraditional or adult students. McDougall said it is a great opportunity both academically and financially.

"It's starting yourself on a really solid foundation, versus coming in and having to get caught up," she said.

At Penn State Fayette, the program will include the main components -- taking two classes; working; participating in the mentorship program; and participating in the Math Academy -- and will last seven weeks.

Robert Tallerico, director of enrollment services, said the population Penn State Fayette serves in the southwestern corner of the state has a large number of students who are the first in their families to go to college -- 52 percent -- and who are from a low socioeconomic background -- with 43 percent eligible for federal Pell grants.

PaSSS addresses affordability both by providing scholarship support and by helping participants complete their degrees on schedule or early, avoiding the unexpected costs of a fifth year in school.

"We know the cost of college is at the forefront of the minds of our students and parents," Tallerico said. "For a lot of families, cost is the No. 1 factor that affects where their children go to college or if they go to college at all. I view this as one of Penn State's ways to engage families on this issue. We understand cost is a motivating factor and can be a barrier to accessing higher education, and we're going to do something about it."

The Math Academy is a new noncredit program Penn State has designed to bring students whose math skills may be lacking up to speed.  Although not only for students in PaSSS, the Math Academy is being incorporated into the summer program.

Rick Brazier, interim associate dean for faculty and research, said the goal of the academy is to use a combination of online courseware and self-paced, on-the-ground tutoring at each of the campuses to raise students' math levels to their expected starting point.

"This will mean they have a greater probability of finishing their degrees on time and thus saving money at the same time," said Brazier, an associate professor of mathematics and geology.

The goal, Tallerico said, is to bring students' skills to where they need to be — and avoid another potential pitfall down the road.

"For a lot of students, math tends to be one of those areas where they could potentially fall behind," Tallerico said. "If they're not building those skills early, then future math courses are not going to be successful. We're going to give them the skills up front so they can be successful."

Next year, a Writing Academy, similar to the Math Academy, will be offered as well.

Tallerico noted that students will continue PaSSS in their second summer, taking courses with scholarship support. They'll also move into mentoring roles, helping the next group of participating freshmen.

Elizabeth Wright, director of academic affairs at Penn State Hazleton, said the goal is "to help students strengthen their academic writing, critical reading and quantitative thinking skills, as well as to encourage students to refine their academic and career goals."

Along with being paired with student and faculty mentors, participants at Penn State Hazleton also will meet with campus leadership, faculty and staff who work in advising, career services, student affairs and the library.

"These sessions are intended to help ease the transition to college by helping students to become fully acquainted with the Penn State community and the many resources available," Wright said.

The initiative is one of the steps the University is taking to address the needs of students from families who struggle financially with the cost of higher education. It is part of a larger effort President Eric Barron introduced to promote access and affordability. Other initiatives include:

  • expanding the Student Transitional Experiences Program (STEP) to other campuses. STEP provides students who transfer to University Park from another campus an opportunity to take two classes over the summer with the same group of students.
  • offering financial literacy learning opportunities to help students and their families make informed decisions about the cost of education and financial decisions.
  • increasing support for the Provost Awards scholarship program, which uses central University funds to provide financial aid awards of $4,000 to students with annual renewals.