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Navigating Student Success

‘Navigators’ Are Critical in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Institution-Wide Initiative

An Interview with IUP’s Paula Stossel, MSc, Strategic Advisor for Student Success, and Amber Racchini, EdD, Vice Provost for Student Academic Success

Paula Stossel Amber Racchini

As of the fall 2023 semester, all 8,500-plus students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) were assigned “navigators,” dedicated staff responsible for supporting them through pre-enrollment and as they pursue their respective programs of study. These assignments are a key component of the university’s Student Success Infrastructure (SSI), a new organizational model announced in April 2023 and designed to drive IUP closer to its goal of student centeredness. The SSI’s mission is “to help each and every student at IUP persist while providing the highest quality academic and personal experience possible, from pre-enrollment through program completion.”

Paula Stossel, the university’s strategic advisor to the president for student success, and her colleague, Amber Racchini, vice provost for student academic success, have been integral to bringing the SSI mission to fruition. University leaders asked Stossel and Racchini, both long-time staff members, to apply their experience and expertise to SSI leadership.

The spring 2024 edition of the Society for College and University Planning’s Trends for Higher Education report includes an item about students who feel unprepared for college and/or experienced learning loss from the pandemic.

Given Stossel and Rachini’s recent work with IUP’s SSI, we turned to them to gain additional insight: Might integrated planning to support student success be a game changer in helping higher education institutions retain and graduate their students.

They graciously accepted our invitation to address questions about their cross-functional effort to ensure a student-centered approach to delivery of support services at IUP.

What served as the catalyst for the creation of IUP’s Student Success Infrastructure?

Paula Stossel: This initiative stemmed from our strategic plan and the call to be an exceptionally student-centered university. We are focusing our resources, efforts, and energies on keeping all students–and all levels of students–that come to the university. We have long-standing programs that support our students, and we know that we’ve had high levels of success with them. However, those programs impact smaller groups of identified students. So, part of this, too, is about how we scale up our efforts to truly impact all students.

Amber Racchini: Once we started looking at some of the more specific data related to students who were leaving, there are obvious groups of students that we have a difficult time retaining. For example, we had students that were juniors and seniors who were eligible to graduate or progress onto the next year, didn’t have a financial hold, and were in good academic standing. Yet they were still choosing not to return or to stay [at IUP].

That makes you pause and think. What is it that’s causing them to leave? And how can we prevent that from happening? That was part of our conversation.

In addition, we have found that we only end up retaining about 40 percent of students who enter probation status at any point during their time at the university. By developing strategies that affect students at all levels, including these specific student groups, we’re looking at what we can do to prevent students from ending up on probation. We know that once that happens, it’s going to be even more challenging for them to be successful at IUP.

Now that the SSI is almost a year old, what have been your challenges and your opportunities?

Stossel: In terms of challenges, this is a culture change for our university. We needed to take a deep dive into how we are supporting our students with our current practices and processes. Are we unintentionally putting up barriers for our students because those work processes are easier for us, or [is it] “something we’ve always done”?

We had to have those sometimes very difficult conversations in a very intentional and deep way with all our colleagues to truly get to where we needed to go in terms of doing our work differently. We engaged everyone on our campus, from facilities and faculty to students and staff, and had face-to-face meetings via Zoom with hundreds of individuals to get this information. The biggest challenge is really making sure that we engage everybody in meaningful conversations, which takes time. Once we kept having conversations at various places across the university, this also ended up being an opportunity in terms of people getting excited and wanting to engage and contribute.

Racchini: To have buy-in from the highest levels at the university, and to know that this support and confidence in the program is unwavering, is an opportunity. Paula and I feel supported in all the work that we’re doing this year, and that’s because our leadership is behind us. We recognize that’s not always been the case in the past. Knowing that there’s going to be not only financial support but moral support in making sure that parts of our model are being implemented and implemented correctly has really been critically important to the process. It allows me to be very authentic when I’m talking to individuals across campus because I can say without a doubt that this is something that the President and our Council of Trustees buys into–that we’re doing this because we need the institution to be better for our students. That’s been a good opportunity, and people are on board.

One of the challenges, to build off what Paula was saying, is that it is a culture shift. For example, we are using technology that we already have as an institution that had rolled out prior to the SSI. Now it’s a matter of rebranding it and sharing with all our stakeholders the why behind what we’re using and how it’s benefiting the students. Another challenge is trying to get everyone to recognize that it’s not necessarily about you and your workload. What you’re doing in terms of using this technology is ultimately going to benefit our students. That’s the why behind how all these pieces intersect. The foundation for why we’re using those tools has been set. It’s just a matter of continuing to build on it.

Stossel: We’ve already mentioned the support that we have from our leadership, which is essential. We have also had full support to operate institutionally. We engage with every single member of the community, regardless of where they work or what they do, from faculty to facilities. We pull people from all over the institution to be part of our work groups or committees. Being able to engage our colleagues related to their subject matter expertise to join in and help problem solve or provide feedback is a wonderful opportunity, and it continues to break down silos.

Tell us more about the staff members serving as navigators. How do they interact with faculty and other staff?

Stossel: The navigators are a critical part of the model. Our team is focused on student success all day, every day. When we developed our expectations for the navigator team, it was important to us that they not only bring the correct skill set to the work, but they also bring the right team mentality and ability to contribute to the university. [This meant] by not only engaging with our students but being able to engage with their families and support networks intentionally and effectively as well as with all our faculty and staff. We need them to be active partners within the university.
In terms of how they interact with faculty and staff, navigators are assigned a caseload of approximately 500 students and work with their students from the start until they complete their programs. Their caseloads include a range of individuals from high school students taking classes at the university through dual enrollment to students who might need to “stop out,” take a break for a semester, and come back. It is the navigator’s role to stay connected with those students and help them make a successful re-entry.

Some of our students transition from undergrad to graduate programs at our institution. Our goal is keeping that continuity so that a navigator can follow that student the whole way through. It’s about building intentional relationships while identifying potential barriers to students’ success.

Racchini: In addition, navigators are supposed to be able to address any question that a student, parent, or faculty member has. One of the key parts of our training for them is that they are not referring students out. They are making sure that they track down the answer for the student and close the loop. For example, even if it is a financial aid question, we might need to engage with our partner in financial aid. But we’re not just saying to the student, “Here’s the number. Go at it.” It’s about making sure that students have their questions answered. We might not be able to solve everything, but we can at least give them the information. Then we’re closing the loop, not only with the students, but with the partners that are part of their success team.

Given the trend of students feeling unprepared for courses, do you think higher education institutions may be reorganizing resources or leveraging different resources to provide more student-centered support?

Racchini: Another instrumental part of the SSI is our advising center, which we centralized so that it works better for students. At IUP, our faculty are required to serve as the primary academic advisors for all our students. There are evening hours, and the center is staffed during breaks. Advising is another piece of keeping students on track and identifying if they’re under-prepared for courses. We are training faculty in the best advising techniques. How do you recognize if a student is not progressing the way they need to? What are the resources for that student? Where can you direct them for assistance?

We have noticed that our focus on resource centralization has allowed for more open dialogue with students about whether they’re having setbacks in their first semester gateway classes. We’re able to address those issues early on in their pathway to make sure that they are, in fact, getting the support they need. A key element of student success is knowing that advising across the board is so important for the student experience.

Stossel: The SSI also includes a data and technology specialist specific to student success. The role is essential as we use a data-driven approach in our work and expand on predictive analytic opportunities to help our students successfully complete their studies. In addition to the conversations that Amber mentioned happening within the advising center, coordinating technology, data, and processes institutionally is exciting.

What would be your best or most important advice for others you know, campuses, or institutions, or individual contributors like yourself, who would like to approach something like an SSI on their campus?

Stossel: Take the time to plan. Our approach was institutional, with a core team that came back together throughout the process to keep talking about the ideas that were coming forward. Being thoughtful, intentional, engaging, and transparent in your planning process is essential.

Racchini: Celebrate the good work that’s already happening. With the rollout of our infrastructure, it was important for us to say that we know great work is already happening, and this model will elevate that work. The other piece is that we always ask for feedback in every conversation that we have. We aren’t going to pretend that we have all the answers, but we’re going to do the work and continue to refine our approach until we have a model that is going to work for students.

Stossel: We’re at the tip of the iceberg for this work, and we have a lot of initiatives that we plan to roll out over the next several semesters. And so, like Amber said, this is an initiative where we’re collecting feedback. We know there are barriers that we still want to address moving forward. SSI is a continual work in progress. I am excited about what’s to come.

Read all of the trends and analysis from the spring 2024 issue of Trends for Higher Education.