A History of First-Year Experience Programs

As the first-year college experience is a lot of the discussion here at eighteen and life, I thought you may appreciate a little historical reference.

College orientation, or programming focused on the student adjustment to the new academic environment, is recognized as the precursor to first-year experience programs. Early programs grouped students by housing and assigned advisers to guide new students in their education quest. Johns Hopkins University had formed a system of faculty advisors by 1877 and Harvard University had a board of freshman advisors on record in 1889 (Gordon, 1989). First-year seminar courses were later added to the early orientation structure to more fully develop the first-year experience. A first-year course initiated at Boston University in 1888 is recognized as one of the first organized orientation courses while the first orientation course for credit originated at Reed College in 1911 (Gordon, 1989). More than 82 first-year courses were available by 1925-26 with topics ranging from adjustment to college, study skills, current events, citizenship, and reflective thinking. A third of all colleges and universities offered these courses in the 1930’s and by 1948 a survey reported that 43% of institutions had required orientation courses in the curriculum (Gordon, 1989).

Faculty objections to course credit for non-academic orientation courses soon led to the downfall in their offering and fewer courses could be found on the college campuses of the middle to latter half of the 20th century. The political unrest of the 1960’s and early 1970’s resulting in campus demonstrations and protests led to an even wider divide between students and universities. The University of South Carolina is credited with acknowledging this rift and initiating a plan to link students with the university in the first-year. This led to resurgence in the popularity of the first-year seminar and other first-year student programming (Saunders and Romm, 2008). In addition to addressing the needs of new direct from high school students, first-year programs also attended to the “new college student” as students transitioned from individuals of financial means to more adult, first-generation, and less-academically prepared students. Higher education professionals again “sought ways of helping freshmen make the transition from high school or work to the college environment” (Gordon, 1989, p. 188).

Throughout the 1980’s, first-year experience courses and programs grew and evolved as institutions gave consideration to the transition experience of a growing diverse student population. Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt & Associates (2005) reported that many of the DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice) institutions are skilled at guiding transitions for student success in college and frequently require first-year experience courses or provide additional programs and activities that serve this function. First-year programs including summer orientation through seminar courses are now widely ingrained on the college and university campus and are promoted as important retention strategies common in the student transition to college.


Gordon, V. N. (1989). Origins and purposes of the freshman seminar. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, and Associates (Eds.), The freshman year experience: helping students survive and succeed in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J. Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., & Associates (2005). Student success in college: creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saunders, D. F. & Romm, J. (2008). An historical perspective on first-year seminars. In B. F. Tobolowsky & Associates, 2006 National Survey of First-Year Seminar: Continuing innovations in the collegiate curriculum (Monograph No. 51, pp. 1-4). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

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