Up to three times a week Matt Studenmund dons his red polo and leads packs of potential students with parents in tow throughout Ohio State’s campus.
As a University Ambassador, Studenmund, a fourth-year in science and mathematics education, is charged with advertising not only campus itself, but also the programs it hosts.
Once he turns the corner onto College Road, heading toward Smith Steeb to showcase the residence halls to prospective students, he begins a well rehearsed speech.
“So STEP is the Second-Year Transformational Experience Program and its for all of our students who live on campus and are in their second year,” Studenmund said. “So with your STEP program as long as you go to the meetings and fill out the proposal you can earn up to a free $2,000 for any transformational experience that you want.”
This advertisement to prospective students centers heavily on a $2,000 signature project. However, according to university officials, what Studenmund’s speech presents as merely boxes to check before receiving $2,000 in funding, is actually the core of STEP.
“I think we try to package it as this complete program, not just one tiny piece,” said Dr. Anne McDaniel, Executive Director in the Center for the Study of Student Life.
The program was founded with the broad goal of second-year success, according to university officials. Participants are required to complete a financial consulting meeting and three professional development co-curriculars of their choice.
The two main components of STEP, however, are group meetings within a “cohort” consisting of other STEP participants led by a faculty member, as well as the signature project, which is defined as a “transformational experience” that the student can earn up to $2,000 to complete. The project must fall into one of six categories: undergraduate research, education abroad, service learning, leadership, internships or creative and artistic endeavors.
“We want our students to be able to take part in some sort of experiential ‘thing,’” Isaacs said. “We wanted them to have that opportunity. If the stipend helped them have that, that was great.”
STEP participants work to craft a proposal for their project throughout the year, pending approval by administration and provided the requirements of attending meetings, PDCs and financial consultation are met, the student will receive the money.
An analysis of university records showed that on average, 78.5 percent of STEP participants complete a signature project proposal and STEP students have, on average, a 3 percent higher retention rate.
Ohio State officials, though, argue that these numbers aren’t adequate measurements of success. They describe the signature projects as optional and say retention rates are “a good metric, but certainly not the only metric.”
The university instead places an emphasis on the cohort meetings and the student-faculty relationships they intend to foster.
McDaniel said research indicates that meaningful relationships with peers in residence halls as well as interactions with faculty members are strong predictors of second-year success.
“Armed with that information, we set about to establish a program to accomplish that,” Isaacs said.
For two students, the program falls short of this goal.
The university’s emphasis on the group meetings is not reflected in faculty testimonials, student experience or the funding breakdown. They indicate that STEP’s primary focus is the signature project.
Aleese Sarrouh, a 2017 hospitality management graduate who participated in the program in 2015, said that STEP was “one of her least favorite college experiences.” She described the project as centric to her experience with the program and the cohort meetings as hoops to jump through to get her funding.
“You had to essentially ‘earn’ your $2,000, but I feel like I did almost nothing in the program to get the money,” Sarrouh said. “You had to like, attend these monthly meetings. Then you had to attend your cohort meetings and supplemental meetings.”
Sarrouh used her $2,000 stipend to attend a leadership trip in Washington D.C. She said the trip itself was beneficial, but she had almost nothing positive to say about STEP as a whole.
“I despised it,” Sarrouh said. “I’m glad I got the money just to go on the trip, but past that, I would never do it again and I would never recommend it to anybody else.”
Both current and past participants also are required to attend the STEP Expo, an event highlighting the projects completed by the outgoing group. The expo is held twice a year and is the largest event put on by the program, adding to the public perception that the signature project is central to STEP.
Jacob Caponi, a second-year in public health, is currently enrolled in STEP and said he hasn’t seen any personal growth from his participation in the program.
“If anything, it’s stunting my growth,” Caponi said.
Caponi said he found his faculty coordinator to be a hindrance rather than a resource.
“My person just kept excusing herself by saying she didn’t do this last year. She just kept saying how she wasn’t trained and the training she did have was very scattered,” Caponi said. “It seemed like she was just doing it as this sort of professional development thing for her.”
In terms of faculty perception, Dr. Christopher Zirkle, a professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology and STEP cohort leader, said he believes that the program is centered around the signature project.
“Well, it’s one of the main focuses of STEP, to give students the opportunity to participate in something they would not otherwise,” Zirkle said.
Caponi said the signature project was one of the main reasons he joined STEP.
STEP’s funding breakdown also indicates the program’s primary facet is the signature project.
Since the program’s inception in 2014, 70 percent of STEP’s total budget has been allocated toward signature projects. This amounts to $9.2 million out of a total $13.2 million.
Despite $13.2 million spent and five years of honing the program’s vision, the university seems to lack any clear mechanism for measuring the success of the program.
When presented with data showing a 3 percent positive increase in second-year retention rates, McDaniel was reluctant to attribute this to STEP’s success.
“When you use causal language, I get a little nervous,” McDaniel said. “I think for us, what is more telling right now is the student growth we see over the course of the second year. Students in STEP show significant growth in feeling comfortable accessing faculty members and their career self-efficacy and their academic self-efficacy.”
None of these are quantifiable measurements.
The university did provide partial data in the form of survey results from the year 2017. Despite requests for the data’s source and the number of participants interviewed, The Lantern was unable to attain such information.
“I don’t ever remember filling out a survey, because if I did it definitely would not have been a positive one,” Sarrouh said.
The survey contained responses such as, “81% of students agree that being part of STEP is beneficial,” and “When asked whether they intend to complete their degree at Ohio State, 98.3% agree or strongly agree.”
The top two benefits students reported gaining from STEP “completing a proposal for and their experience in their Signature Project,” and “the fellowship for the Signature Project.”
The university identified faculty connections and peer communities as key determinants of second-year success, but instead, the program seems to revolve around a “transformational experience” and the Signature Project instead of the cohorts, which the university said was the core of the program.
Despite thousands of participants, half a decade of operation and millions spent, it’s impossible to measure STEP’s impact. The program was created to assist second-year students, however, the fact remains that there is little-to-no empirical evidence supporting whether it does so or not.
Both Caponi and Sarrouh expressed a desire for the communal aspects of STEP, but were disappointed with the university’s execution.
“I feel like the core of it, and the intention behind it could have been really awesome if it had the right leadership and the right organization, and if it had the right structure,” said Sarrouh. “Basically, the idea is good, but everything else is bad.”