PennWest University is implementing a software platform across its three campuses to aid in student retention.

California and Edinboro campuses have already found success using Starfish, the software that provides a way to gather information on student progress and proactively offer support to at-risk students. Clarion is new to the platform this year.

“Over my years of using Starfish, I believe the outcomes have been amazing for students and faculty on this campus,” said Tyton Brunner, academic achievement specialist and head of supplemental instruction at PennWest California.

With the new platform, communication is key.

“Starfish is one of the few retention platforms that offers the ability to communicate across campuses along with additional features such as recording attendance, strategic analytics, retention scores and making appointments,” said Lisa Glasser, PennWest director of student retention solutions and Starfish coordinator. “Faculty and staff have multiple pieces of software at their fingertips, but Starfish provides one, centralized location for students to access information, contact campus constituents, and view their academic progress.”

Glasser estimates the platform has saved thousands of human work hours by having a centralized resource for faculty, staff and students to share information.

“So, we have all of these tools and resources right at our fingertips and it really kind of marries the entire campus together, and the communication just flows so much better,” said Julie Osekowski, success coach at PennWest California.  

However, Starfish’s output is only as good as its input.

In Starfish, many departments, faculty and even the students themselves have a hand in entering data into the system. For example, the Office of the Registrar’s first-week attendance data helps with federal compliance of attendance-driven financial aid.

Progress surveys, which faculty complete during weeks five and 10, are another example of data that is placed in the system. On the surveys, faculty provide feedback on student course performance. That, in turn, “allows our team to push out support services to students and alert the proper groups in a student’s network, such as athletic coaches, Greek Life, scholarship programs, etc.,” Glasser explained.

The entire Starfish process begins when the student makes a tuition deposit. Their information goes into another software system called Banner, which creates a student identity in Starfish, Glasser said.

“Students can ask for help in Starfish by using the ‘Raise Your Hand’ feature at anyhour, and be assured a response the next business day. Parents love this feature when we present it during New Student Orientations,” Glasser said.

Student information is updated daily via Slate, PennWest’s customer relationship management system, which pushes data into Banner, which pushes data into Starfish.

“When a flag (or concern) is raised for a student, an email is sent to the student's PennWest account from the faculty member, and a notification is saved to the student's Starfish folder. There is also a summary email that Starfish sends if there are multiple items raised on students,” Glasser said. “There also is a ‘Kudos’ flag, which allows for positive feedback. Every student has an individualized success network, and anyone connected to the student can view this concern.”

Recognizing at-risk students as early as possible is key to retention.

“It does give you a quick and easy way to provide students with feedback,” said Dr. Ron Craig, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at PennWest Edinboro.

This helps to curtail the stigma that surrounds the need for help.

“Data shows us that students, especially first-generation students and non-traditional learners, are unlikely to reach out until it is too late. The stigmas of ‘everyone will know’ or ‘I never needed that before’ often stop a student from seeking help at the first signs of struggle,” Glasser said.

The earlier a flag is raised, the better it is for the student.

“Tools like Starfish allow everyone in a student’s support network to work together for the most pro-active, holistic student support possible,” Glasser said.

The most frequently asked question is if this type of system violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“As long as Starfish is used for the benefit of the student and their educational program, we are following all FERPA requirements. This is true of any system. All aspects of Starfish are aimed at supporting the holistic student in their journey at PennWest,” Glasser said.

In addition to retention, Starfish can close equity gaps, improve student outcomes and meet fiscal needs. It does this through the program’s automation, as well as through historical and predictive data, which show trends and alert Starfish users to helpful services.