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Mercyhurst University’s Steps to Success program was designed to improve efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate first-generation students as they transfer from the two-year associate degree programs at Mercyhurst’s Northeast (MU-NE) campus to the main four-year Mercyhurst University campus in Erie. The Erie campus offers bachelor’s degree programs in more than 100 majors, minors, and concentrations. According to FAFSA data gathered in 2009, only 22 percent of students in baccalaureate programs on the Erie campus were first-generation students. The MU-NE campus, which offers 24 associate degrees, seven one-year certificates, and an RN to BSN completion program, had 45 percent first-generation students.
The CIC/Walmart College Success Award supported the hiring of a graduate assistant, himself a first-generation student and Mercyhurst graduate, who acted as a peer mentor and provided counseling and friendship to other first-generation students. To reach first-generation students, the university developed a marketing plan that included the successful launch of inter-campus discussion forums among liberal arts, criminal justice, business, education, and hospitality management faculty at MU-NE. The university also held in-class transfer information sessions during the first semester, with presentations by peer mentors. These sessions were conducted with the professor’s involvement and provided students with information about the Dean’s Internal Transfer Scholarship Award program available only to MU-NE students who transfer and pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree on the main campus. For students who transfer, the university developed an ongoing early warning system for first-generation students that flags mid-term grades. The internal transfer office then brought the students that needed assistance to academic support services counselors assigned to provide tutorial support. In spring 2012, the university held a “Welcome to Erie” event for potential first-generation and other transfer students. The university provided transportation, and more than 30 students attended.
The most successful aspects of the program were the creation of a new writing center and lab at MU-NE, which opened in fall 2012; the increased number of Internal Transfer Dean’s Scholarships awarded to associate degree and transfer students; the creation of an honors program at MU-NE that will interface with the honors program on the Erie campus; and the effective development of the internal transfer office and the services it provided to first-generation transfer students. The office became the conduit for all communication, the center of activity, and a meeting place for counseling sessions between former and new first-generation transfer students.

Program Outcomes

Prior to the CIC/Walmart College Success Award, the six-year average graduation rate for MU-NE first-generation students was 42 percent. In the 2009 cohort of Steps to Success students, 70 percent graduated with an associate’s degree, and of those 62 percent went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. In the 2010 cohort, 54 percent graduated with an associate’s degree, and of those 76 percent went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. As a result of the program, students demonstrated improved academic performance, and admission rates among transfers between the two campuses rose.

Program Updates

The university continues efforts to recruit first-generation students from MU-NE to transfer to the baccalaureate programs on the Erie campus. To do that more effectively, the university moved its Office for Internal Transfers to the Northeast campus.
Progress also continues as the Steps to Success program evolves. The value of the dean’s internal transfer scholarship rose from $10,000 to $12,000, the university built a new writing and math resource center and lab at MU-NE, and the university seeks additional funding from local and regional foundations and friends.