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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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