Penn State president looks back at year of initiatives and successes

February 26, 2016

HERSHEY, Pa. – Last year at this time, Penn State President Eric Barron was pitching several initiatives that seemed so wide ranging that it was hard to imagine a plan that could gel into success. His ideas extended from improving access and affordability to the University, to having every campus be an economic engine for their communities.

On Friday (Feb. 26) Barron revealed the fruits of his efforts to push the University community to coalesce around his six imperatives, ( which he introduced just after arriving as president at Penn State in 2014. His initiatives in just two areas have already yielded a wealth of critical accomplishments and streamlined endeavors that were already in place.

In his presentation to the Board of Trustees, Barron focused on access and affordability -- known as Plan4 -- as well as Invent Penn State, his economic development, job creation and student success initiative. 

“There has been an explosion of activity over the past year and it’s exciting to see the many innovative ways that Penn State is working to create opportunities across the board in just these two areas,” Barron said.  “By prioritizing where resources should be deployed and guiding efforts, we have been able to establish building blocks that exceed the capability or interest of a single unit.  That is the power of Penn State.”

Plan4 Penn State

Barron said his Plan4 PennState initiative has shaped access and affordability efforts resulting in more emphasis and expansion of several programs, including Pathway to Success: Summer Start (PaSSS), an effort geared toward “at-risk” students; Student Transitional Experiences Program (STEP) for students moving from Commonwealth Campuses to University Park; online courses; micro-scholarship program; and financial literacy instruction.

All of the initiatives are aimed at increasing retention and graduation; decreasing the total cost of a degree; decreasing the rate of borrowing and decreasing attrition due to the need for additional money to attend.

Currently, PaSSS is in place at six campuses with an inaugural cohort of 135 students who have been provided with a maximum $1,500 scholarship to take summer classes, an on-campus job, mentoring, a math academy, and the opportunity to return in year two for a second round and a maximum $3,000 scholarship. Next year, Barron said 300 students at nine Penn State campuses will be taking part in the program.

In STEP, the colleges of Smeal, Engineering and Health and Human Development are participating. Students in STEP receive a $1,000 Provost Award and are eligible for on-campus employment, career preparation courses and other support services.

Online courses are expanding to be available to the entire University to increase access and offer faster time to graduation; and financial literacy courses — while already in place at various levels — are being streamlined into a one-stop center for students and being offered as seminars.

The micro-scholarship program designed to allow high school students to earn credits toward a four-year Penn State scholarship is currently available to student in five Philadelphia area high schools and six rural Pennsylvania schools. The program encourages academic preparation and leadership opportunities.

“Step-by-step, a set of experiments designed to address one of the most pressing and difficult issues facing higher education today,” Barron said. “It will take us four to six years to determine if it is successful. If we can get an additional 800 at-risk students to graduate within six years we will move into the top echelon of public universities across the country in terms of overall graduation rates.”

Invent Penn State

With Invent Penn State, Barron touched upon not only the funds that have been invested in this initiative, but also the programs, partnerships and leaps in innovation that have occurred in just one year in this space.  Invent Penn State is an effort by the president to leverage Penn State’s size and broad research strengths to drive job creation, economic development and student career success.

Barron said that more than $50 million dollars has been set aside in interest-bearing accounts to drive ongoing efforts and another $25 million is available to build innovative incubator and “maker space.”  The investments include $1.5 million to advance commercialization of University innovations; and $50,000 in seed grants for each of six campuses for multi-year growth of entrepreneurship.  

Barron described the initiative as a “forcing function,” saying that outlining priorities and clearing the path for action, has encouraged resources to move more rapidly toward this initiative and to more quickly engage more of the Penn State community.  The emphasis is, in fact, moving the University in a new direction, according to Barron.

“What is happening in a very short time is nothing short of astounding. And it’s not just happening at University Park,” Barron said. “It’s happening all over the Commonwealth at all of our campuses.”

Barron pointed to the recent launch of entrepreneurial and economic development centers at five Commonwealth Campuses, with a sixth expected later this month, as proof of Penn State’s ability to create “lasting ecosystems of economic vitality.”

“There is an undeniable interdependence with the communities we serve. We take our stewardship role very seriously and Invent Penn State is a proposition that adds value,” Barron said. “There is probably no one outside of Penn State who can do this. There is no other entity that can spread entrepreneurship in such a deliberate way across Pennsylvania in this manner. Our campus system offers enormous advantage for Invent Penn State to connect with communities.”

There is only one real impediment to success in these areas, Barron said. He warned that the eight-month budget impasse involving state lawmakers and the governor that has resulted in no appropriation for Penn State or the other state-related institutions could jeopardize the Invent Penn State investment, as well as the gains made and funds put toward access and affordability.

For a look at Barron’s full presentation to the board, visit

Last Updated February 28, 2016