DePaul University Academic Affairs > Initiatives > Peer Support Network

Peer Support Network

Thanks to a $1.2 million grant from an anonymous donor, along with a dollar-for-dollar match from DePaul’s strategic planning funds to support “Grounded in Mission,” we have launched the Peer Support Network. This multi-pronged initiative enlists peer mentors in establishing connections to freshmen and new transfer students with the goal of increasing their persistence at DePaul.  Through the Network, we hope to create a coordinated and comprehensive approach focused on ensuring that all first-year students know that someone at DePaul has their back.  Below we provide some background on this initiative, along with descriptions of each element. 

Background:  Over the past decade, DePaul’s 4- and 6-year graduation rates have increased steadily and now significantly exceed the national averages for private universities.  Most of our students who enter DePaul as freshmen and ultimately graduate from here do so in about 4 years; that rate has increased from 40% for student who entered in 1995, to 50% for those who entered in 2005, to 60% for those who entered in 2015.

These gains came about through concerted efforts across the university on many fronts, both academic and administrative.  Yet these gains came about without increasing the first-year retention rate; that is, the rate at with entering freshmen return to begin a second year.  It wasn’t that we were not concerned with first-year retention; we were.  We focused not on improving the persistence rate from year to year but rather on academic progress in the first year, focusing not on how many students returned for year 2 but rather how many in their first year made a full year’s academic progress toward their degree.  We have moved that percent of the class with higher academic performance from 50% to over 60% in recent years, though the retention rate has remained stable.   Because more of the students who returned for Year 2 returned in better academic status, the eventual graduation rate improved among the same 85% of those who persisted into Year 2 – which was exactly our goal.   We knew that the end-game was degree completion – and just increasing student retention without improving student progress was not sufficient.

Now our task is to return to a focus on first-year retention, both for new freshmen and transfer students.  For the past twenty years, our first-year retention rate has held steady in the mid-80% range; hence 15-20% of our freshman class does not return for a second year.  This retention rate is already better than the national average for private institutions, especially for institutions that have as diverse a student profile as we have.  Still, there is room to improve.  Our goal is to achieve a 90% first-year retention rate, no small undertaking for a university with our student profile.

In addition, we are looking to address significant gaps in retention among certain groups of students.  Students with lower levels of academic preparation, students with high levels of unmet financial need,  under-represented minorities, particularly African-American students,  students from Chicago Public Schools, all have notably lower rates of retention and completion.  Though we already do better than would be predicted given this student diversity, closing these gaps is very much a part of our focus.

Strategy:  Our earlier retention efforts involved new ways of thinking about student profile, progress to degree, business processes, and our promise to students – all with an eye towards eliminating institutional  barriers to degree completion and better creating an integrated educational experience for our students.  You can learn more about our approach and concrete efforts in Reframing Retention Strategy for Institutional Improvement (2013), edited by David H. Kalsbeek.

With this institutional foundation in place, we are now expanding our focus to include relationships that new students can build with peer mentors.   We are hoping that, in the different roles described below, members of The Peer Support Network will be able to help new students navigate the complexities of this large university, find the targeted support they need, and hence chart a meaningful path for themselves.

Creating a University-Wide Peer Support Network  

 DePaul has a longstanding tradition of employing students to work as peers, whether as mentors for the Chicago Quarter and other programs in Student Affairs, or tutors in the University Center for Writing-based Learning and various departmental tutoring programs.  In the past, each program involving peer support operated independently:  hiring and training its peers, then tracking student participation in their program alone.  Now we are working to create a solid “network” that respects the specificity of each program but also provides some common training and a shared framework for tracking student participation.  This Network will be overseen by DePaul’s Executive Retention Group, including leaders from Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Enrollment Management & Marketing.

Training:  No matter what program-specific training peer mentors received, we believe that every peer mentor and tutor should have a foundational understanding of resources available at DePaul so that they can direct students appropriately.  In addition, Student Affairs is bringing together representatives from various programs across the university that employ peers to determine additional training elements that should be common across the board.  Over the coming months, we will determine how best to deliver this training, most likely with a combination of on-line and face-to-face components.

Referrals:  One of the most important aspects of our training will be to help peers make appropriate referrals to academic and other support services across campus.  While peers’ own experience provides a valuable connection with their students, it is no substitute for the professional services we offer.  Hence peers will be responsible for making and tracking their referrals.  

Tracking:  In the past, individual programs involving peers gathered data on student participation in their own program.  However, we had no way to cross-reference any particular student’s participation in multiple programs, or, even more importantly, identify those students who participated in no support programs at all.   Thus one of the goals of the Peer Support Network is to create a system whereby we can track peers’ contacts with students, along with the students’ use of additional DePaul resources.  With this system in place, we will be able, for the first time, to begin to evaluate the impact of peer support on students’ persistence into their second year at DePaul and beyond.

Peer Support Network Grant-Funded Initiatives

The following initiatives have launched in recent months and will continue to be developed over the coming year.  The current grant provides two years of funding.

Student Success Coaching:    This peer coaching program assigns an upperclassman or graduate level coach to each first-year student to support them in their transition to and journey through DePaul. Student Success Coaches meet with their assigned students one-on-one, and together they reflect on the first year student’s strengths, challenges and vision for the future, while creating an action plan to meet their idea of success.

College-based Peer Mentors:  In this program, upper classmen are assigned to new transfer students in their respective colleges to support their transition to DePaul and establish local contacts.  Peer mentors will be in contact with their assigned students, create events to bring them together and help build community, and provide helpful college-specific information.

Financial Literacy: In this program, ten peers serve as college liaisons for referrals and classroom presentations.  They will conduct workshops on such topics ranging from creating a money plan to managing debt load, and leasing an apartment.  In addition, they will coordinate with academic advisors and offer individual and/or group assistance.

EDGE:  The Education and Development Grant for Employability Program provides a select group of up to 250 eligible first-year students the opportunity to participate in a campus-wide program that combines career and job skill development while contributing to a department or office project team.  Peer mentors will now be assigned to work with each team. 

Supplemental Instruction: This long-standing program is an internationally recognized, evidence-backed model that aims to help students successfully complete historically difficult classes (those with high D, F, or Withdraw rates) through weekly peer-assisted study sessions.  The grant has allowed us to extend SI to additional courses and nearly double the number of participating students.

Students Together Are Reaching Success (STARS):   This program pairs incoming targeted first year and transfer students (those who identify as students of color, are the first in their family to attend college and/or demonstrate financial need) with upper class students in their academic college.  The goal of the program is to support the unique academic and social transition into college for historically underserved students by establishing a supportive community that will assist them in navigating their DePaul experience.

Looking Ahead:
Of course the initiatives described here are designed to continue far beyond the current grant period.  By tracking these activities and analyzing the data over the coming years, we will be able to make informed decisions about where to direct additional funding, whether from internal or external sources.  Our overarching goal is that same as it has always been:  to create the conditions necessary for the maximum number of students to stay in school and complete their degrees and succeed!

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