Policy changes to allow for earlier intervention to support student success

Grange Building-Penn State

The Grange Building at the University Park campus is home to the Division of Undergraduate Studies, which plays a critical role in advising students at Penn State.

Credit: Patrick Mansell

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A policy change is set to take effect this summer outlining how Penn State intervenes when students encounter academic difficulty, with the hope of providing better routes to recovery.

David R. Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State, said the intention of the policy is to shift how students are assisted when their grade point average (GPA) begins to slip to low levels, and stipulates that the University and advisers share more of the burden when a student enters academic warning.

Academic Administrative Policy I-1: Academic Difficulty and Recovery was approved in April by the Administrative Council on Undergraduate Education (ACUE) and takes effect for the 2019 summer sessions.

The policy now requires that a student’s enrollment unit (an academic college or campus, for example) will be responsible for reaching out to the student and providing resources to aid in academic recovery, formulating a plan with the student and documenting the recovery and engagement efforts in Starfish.

“We don’t want academic warning or suspension to appear punitive,” Smith said. “We want to identify students earlier who are facing academic difficulties and help them create action to resolve it.”

The response will differ depending on the unit of enrollment and allow for flexibility. For example, each Penn State campus or college may designate a person with a different title or responsibility as the point person for reaching out to students having academic difficulties. Smith said the plan for recovery will also depend on the individual student.

“Each student is really in the spot they’re in for their own unique circumstances,” he said, and added that no one plan will fit for every student’s recovery.

The policy outlines how students move into academic warning and outlines clear steps for recovery and getting back to good academic standing with the University. If recovery doesn’t happen, students face a possible academic suspension. Christine B. Masters, assistant dean for academic support and global programs in Penn State’s College of Engineering, stressed that the goal for each adviser and student at Penn State should be to make and execute a successful recovery plan during the warning phase so that they can be more apt to reach their academic goal.

However, if a student isn’t able to recover during academic warning, then they will be required to step away from the University for a period of time.

Masters said, “This break from their studies is intended to allow students to identify and mitigate the cause of their academic struggles and decrease the likelihood of further digging a hole too deep to climb out of.”

Until recent years, there was little formal outreach to students when they encountered academic difficulty. Masters said the Faculty Senate has contributed significantly to helping students by enacting this new policy to ensure that the University provides better support for students to identify and resolve obstacles to their academic success. 

A new part of the policy will allow students in certain circumstances to petition their academic suspension or dismissal to the Faculty Senate. One key requirement for a petition is documented engagement with an academic recovery plan while in academic warning.

Another change in the policy does away with a previous rule that students in their first semester or who had fewer than 18 credits would not be placed into academic warning. These students were simply advised that if they didn’t make a 2.00 GPA in their first semester that they should see an academic adviser. Smith explained a student could continue on in their second semester, be placed on academic warning after that second semester, and possibly have a third semester of academic difficulty. By that time, a student might have dozens of credits worth of failed classes, making it significantly more difficult for the student to return to good academic standing. Under the new policy, a first semester with a GPA under 2.00 will trigger University intervention to help the student develop a plan for academic recovery.

Christopher Walters, coordinator for Student Success at Penn State Abington, said removing the minimum number of credits to trigger an intervention was especially important.

“The earlier a student can make positive changes, the easier it is to improve the GPA,” Walters wrote in an email. “For the past two years, I have offered a Student Success Strategies course to students in pre-warning (fewer than 18 credits but below a 2.0) and those on warning. Those in pre-warning have had much better outcomes.”

Smith, Masters and Walters all sit on the Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Recovery, which was charged by ACUE for reviewing relevant policies. Next on their agenda will be working on policies related to course repeats and grade replacements.