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Great Expectations

Stabley Library

Stabley Library is emerging as a hub of IUP academic support services. Photo: Keith Boyer

A New IUP College Raises the Bar 

As the crop of high school recruits dwindles in the once-bountiful backyards of universities across Pennsylvania, those institutions are more likely now than ever to recognize the value—and their responsibility—in keeping the students they already have and seeing them through to graduation and beyond.

For years, IUP faculty members and administrators made efforts to increase student retention, but their success was modest, at most.

“I think it was an instance of lots of people doing great things all over the university,” President Michael Driscoll said. “The question was, ‘How do we bring those things together, so we can capture best practices and have a bigger impact with more of a central presence?’”

In the fall, IUP did exactly that by opening the University College, a central entity that both supports students and raises the bar for those most likely to stop short of a college degree.

Moving this spring to a renovated Stabley Library, the University College is currently home to some 200 students identified by their academic profiles as needing additional preparation for university study. Next fall, the college will also welcome an estimated 800 exploratory students—perhaps better known as students with undeclared majors.

Targeting both populations offers great potential to make a difference. IUP’s second-year retention rate for first-time, full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students is about 71 percent, which means roughly 3 of 10 students who started classes in fall 2017 did not return the following August.

Michele Norwood and the faculty members who serve as college mentors. From left: Jan Wachter, Safety Sciences; Katie Farnsworth, Geoscience; Norwood; Elizabeth Ricketts Marcus, History; Janet Blood, Fashion Merchandising; and Roger Briscoe, Educational and School Psychology.

Michele Norwood and the faculty members who serve as college mentors. From left: Jan Wachter, Safety Sciences; Katie Farnsworth, Geoscience; Norwood; Elizabeth Ricketts Marcus, History; Janet Blood, Fashion Merchandising; and Roger Briscoe, Educational and School Psychology. Photo: Keith Boyer

“If we’re not able to retain a student, that means the student doesn’t have the credentials of higher education in terms of a degree and yet, in all likelihood, has some debt accumulated from loans taken out—and that’s not what we would like to do,” IUP Provost Timothy Moerland said. “We have an obligation to help students get the most out of their time at IUP.”

Moerland said one of the most common reasons students leave is they feel adrift. “They’re not sure college is for them or that their major is the right one,” he said. “And that loops back exactly to the founding principles of the University College.”

Michele Norwood M’92, assistant vice provost for Undergraduate Student Success and director of the new college, describes its current students as “needing a little more support and a little more direction.” Services they receive include academic advising by Developmental Studies faculty members, tutoring and other learning support, peer mentoring, and guidance in choosing a major. 

The students are also enrolled in linked courses—packages of classes that might include English and History along with courses on learning strategies and on skills needed in higher education. The instructors coordinate their lessons, and skills and strategies taught in one class can be used in the others. “So, instead of having five disparate classes, there’s some thread that runs through them,” Norwood said. “We’re hoping that kind of intentionality helps the student become better prepared academically.”

Meghan Erwin

Developmental Studies faculty member Meghan Erwin with University College students in the fall. Photo: Keith Boyer

Historically, undeclared students have also been at increased risk of leaving school early. Only 63 percent of them who started at IUP in fall 2017 returned the following fall, and only 49 percent who started in fall 2011 went on to graduate within the next six years. IUP’s overall graduation rate over the same period was 56 percent.

For explorers who will enter the University College next fall, linked courses are also part of the retention plan. Norwood first experimented with linked offerings for undeclared students about 13 years ago and found that the students stayed at a greater rate than their undeclared peers who didn’t take the courses.

In subsequent focus groups, students said the linkages helped them connect with the university, Norwood said.

“Let’s face it—if you’re a sociology major, everybody in your introductory class is a sociology major,” she said. “But if you’re undecided, you’re taking a bunch of different things to explore, so you don’t have people in the same situation as you. It’s important for them to have that sense of community and that sense of, ‘Oh, look. There are other people who are doing this.’”

When University College students express interest in a field, they will follow an exploratory theme, such as arts, business, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Each IUP academic college has one to three professors who serve as college mentors, and those mentors will advise the students on what classes to take to keep them moving toward a degree, even if their interests change.

While exploring majors is often associated with adding time and expense to a college education, Moerland said the opposite is more often true. He said some research suggests that as many as 80 percent of students who declare a major are unsure of it.

“All too many of those students end up changing majors down the road,” Moerland said. “They end up backtracking, and that means the clock is ticking. Students take longer, and it costs them more when they change majors late in the game.” As a result, students who explore for one to three semesters can actually graduate sooner, he said.

He described the University College as a “place for students to explore in a way that is academically safe. This works when you have keen advising that is more generally focused, rather than specifically focused toward a discipline.”

The college’s services are also open to the general student population. Anyone who already has a major but is considering a change can seek guidance there from the Major and Career Exploration Center, University College staff members, or college mentors.

Stabley Library under construction rendering of the outdoor entrance to the college

Currently under construction, Stabley Library will house the University College. The illustration, right, shows the outdoor entrance soon coming to the building’s south side.

Because many students are already in the library and because Stabley has become a hub of academic support, the location will suit the college well. Moerland said the college’s services also complement the library and its evolving role. “With its emphasis on major and career wayfinding, the University College fits in extremely well with the library, which is the home of wayfinding in the world of information,” he said.

In addition to its promise for improving student retention, university leaders believe the University College will help raise the bar for academic achievement.

“It takes a lot of the negative stakes away from exploring and finding your passion,” Moerland said. “If you have students who feel committed to the topic, committed to the discipline, that helps us go deeper, explore more, and really help those students make the connections that result in true mastery of a topic. That’s how we get to being an academic destination of choice.”

Driscoll cites a longstanding adage in higher education that encourages high expectation and high support. “So, you set a high bar for students, but you also provide them with the support they need to get over that bar,” he said.

Navigating the bureaucracy of a university can be a challenge in itself, Driscoll said. As a central location for support and advice, the University College gives students a road map to guide their path.

“This additional support allows students to challenge themselves in ways that matter,” Driscoll said. “It gives them the tools—if they didn’t come in with the right tools—to jump over that higher bar. It really is enabling people to jump higher.”

Raising the bar for academics has become a topic of discussion nationally and locally. In Gallup research conducted last winter, alumni who felt they were challenged academically in college were far more likely to say their education prepared them for life beyond graduation and that it was worth the cost. In other words, academic rigor influences value.

In recent attitudinal surveys closer to home, alumni and students gave IUP many high marks, but they also implied the university could have challenged them more.

Driscoll noted some interesting contradictions in those results, since IUP students perform well on state and national examinations—including a 95 percent pass rate on the nursing licensure exam—and they have high rates of admission into graduate school. Many students also acquire real-world experience through internships and research projects and tally high numbers of community service hours.

“Our students do very, very well, and that suggests that objectively we’re meeting a high standard,” Driscoll said. “At the same time, students and alumni both think we could challenge them even more. So, even if the bar is high, it would be great to provide additional value by pushing them even further when they’re here.”

One way IUP is attempting to boost academic rigor is by requiring more writing in classes across all disciplines. 

The director of IUP’s Writing across the Curriculum program, English faculty member Bryna Siegel Finer, is working with 25 departments and programs that are adopting or already following writing models. In these models, writing activities are frequent and often short, but the added practice helps students process course content better, improve their writing skills, and take advantage of “opportunities for continual critical and reflective thinking,” Siegel Finer said. Because meaningful feedback from professors on writing assignments is crucial to increasing rigor, this model is most effective in small classes, she said.

IUP officials also see potential for academic growth in the assessment of how well students meet the learning objectives of their programs and classes.

“How do we know students are learning what we’re saying they’re learning?” is how Edel Reilly D’07, director of IUP’s Liberal Studies program, the common core curriculum for undergraduates, characterized the assessment process. Also a mathematics professor, Reilly said assessments can take many different forms—exams, papers, presentations, service projects. But when students fall short of the specified outcomes, departments must show how they’ll remedy that the following year.

IUP’s accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, already grades the university on how well students meet those outcomes, “so let’s use that information to the full extent we can,” Moerland said.

Other university efforts to increase rigor include continually revising curriculum to keep up with industry changes and technological advances, bringing alumni leaders back to campus to provide feedback on how IUP programs can better prepare students for the workforce, emphasizing real-world application of classroom learning, expanding leadership and study abroad opportunities, and building innovation skills.

To do this effectively, Moerland said, “we need to know our students and meet them where they are.”

Students of this generation, he has learned, want support, want mentorship, want guidance—but they don’t want those things face-to-face. Instead, they prefer communication via text, chat room, or another social media portal.

“We need to recognize that and be there,” he said. “We at least need to be mindful of that and make appropriate adjustments, so we can communicate in the most effective way.”

IUP’s future, Driscoll said, calls for both adapting to those kinds of changes and remaining true to the fundamentals of high-quality education.

“The message here is that this institution that’s coming up on 150 years old needs to be flexible—not to survive but to thrive—and to serve students today and in the future,” Driscoll said. “That’s not about making us weaker. In fact, that’s making us stronger.

“We need to be remarkably adaptable to make sure we continue to provide those incredible experiences for our students to make them better citizens and leaders in very different times. And that’s special—not all institutions can do that.”