On November 20 I attended the STEP expo to see what projects others did in the past couple of years.

“STEP is the Second-Year Transformational Experience Program and it’s for all of the students who live on campus and are in their second year. With the STEP program as long as students go to the meetings and fill out the proposal students can earn up to a free $2,000 for any transformational experience that they want.

This advertisement to prospective students centers heavily on a $2,000 signature project. However, according to university officials, what this statement presents as merely boxes to check before receiving $2,000 in funding, is actually the core of STEP.

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.

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. The university instead places an emphasis on the cohort meetings and the student-faculty relationships they intend to foster.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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