Much of my professional career has been working with students in the first-year experience and transition to college. The word freshman first appeared in the English language in 1550 to describe a newcomer or novice in a field of work or business yet the origins of the first-year student can be traced to the twelfth century when young men converged in Bologna, Italy to study law (Dwyer, 1989). More than six centuries later, one of North America’s earliest universities, Harvard, instituted a system of counselors to attend to the transition from home to college for first-year students (Dwyer, p. 30) becoming the early basis for first-year programming at an American institution. This post provides a review of the history, mission, structure and current issues of freshmen or first-year experience programs as an administrative unit of the university.
History of First-Year Experience Programs
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.
Mission of First-Year Programs
First-year programming on most campuses originated from the topic of retention of students to the second year of college and persistence to graduation. Specific reasons are related to resources and the direct relationship between retention to enrollment and institutional income. (Crissman Ishler & Upcraft, 2005). With that in mind, most first-year program mission statements are framed around increasing academic performance and retention. Ball State, University of South Carolina, and Appalachian State are among those recognized as Institutions of Excellence in the First College Year (2009). Their first-year program mission statements reflect this retention theme.
Ball State University’s Freshman Connections mission is to accelerate the process for new students to learn and succeed at the university. The program “seeks to deepen the contact new students have with faculty, staff, and fellow students in order to improve learning and persistence to graduation” (Ball State, 2008). Fostering academic success, helping students to discover and connect with the university, and preparing student for responsible lives are the tenets of the University of South Carolina’s first-year mission. They are applied as learning outcomes for helping new students make a successful transition, both academically and personally (University South Carolina, 2002). Appalachian State’s Watauga Community is “structured to develop students’ expertise in the skills to evaluate and integrate relevant and quality information from different knowledge sources through individual and collaborative processes” (Appalachian State, 2009). With focuses on connections and building community membership, each of these first-year mission goals strives to enhance retention.
Organization of First-Year Programs
Individuals throughout the campus community play a role in the first-year educational process, including faculty, administrators, staff members, and students. An institution’s faculty usually is responsible for delivering content material in the classroom, while student affairs educators provide learning experiences throughout the campus. Student affairs educators as opposed to faculty frequently take the lead for managing first-year programs and teach students “how to work in teams, manage time, have effective conversations, and make appropriate choices” (Benjamin, Earnest, Gruenewald, & Arthur, 2007, p. 16). The student affairs role is not for out of classroom entertainment, but to partner with students “to enhance their learning experiences both in and out of classrooms” (p. 23). Several distinct programs comprise the structure of first-year programs at most colleges and universities. These programs may be institutionally organized under the same umbrella or may operate independently, but collaboratively as tenets of the first-year campus experience. They are orientation, summer bridge programs, service programs, convocation, first-year seminar, common reading, residential experience and learning communities.
Orientation programs are typically offered during the summer before the academic year allowing first-year students and their families an opportunity to meet departmental faculty and advisers, register for classes, and begin an exploration of the academic program. Participants may have an opportunity to stay overnight in a residence hall, complete placement assessment for proper course registration, and begin building relationships with other students in their area of study. It is common for parents and students to follow separate programming tracks during orientation to allow for students to begin building independent thinking and decision making skills in their academic choices. Additional orientation programs may take place immediately prior to the fall semester allowing for students who could not attend summer programs. Generally students participating in these later events will be international students or students who live some distance from the institution. Orientation programs that include experiential learning programs in the form of “welcome week” and student retreat activities are increasingly common (Benjamin et al. 2007).
Summer Bridge Programs
Summer Bridge programs are generally designed for special populations and may be administered solely by a campus summer programs office or in collaboration between academic and student affairs units. The primary goal of these programs is to promote college retention and improve completion rates by providing students with the academic and social tools needed to succeed in college prior to beginning the first college year (Garcia and Paz, 2009, p. 31). First-generation college students, historically underrepresented student populations, and students requiring academic support are frequently participants in these programs. Summer Bridge coursework often includes a college writing course and other academic electives to prepare and engage students in college academic work. Student affairs, advisors, faculty members and peer mentors collaborate to provide programming and build community among program participants.
Service programs introduce students to the local community and give new students a purpose and focus while helping them acclimate to their new environment. Service programs are often scheduled during welcome week prior to the semester. Participating students meet other new students, faculty, and staff and begin to connect and bond with their new home (Benjamin et al. 2007). Frequently these programs are designed to assist local school districts, human service agencies, or disadvantaged populations. The service projects allow new students to form and develop community teams and demonstrate leadership skills.
Convocation, a formal academic presentation, includes activities unique to an institution that help connect students to the academic dimension of the college or university. It is an opportunity to officially welcome new students, issue academic encouragement and establish expectations for success at the institution. At Ohio State’s official convocation for new students, there are presentations from top administrators, a college processional, and features on the University’s history and traditions (The Ohio State University, 2009). Benjamin et al. (2007) describe convocation programs as important rituals for students that communicate to their new roles as official members of the community.
First-Year seminar courses are a staple of first-year programs and can be flexible based on an institution’s needs and the population of students that they are trying to serve. Extended orientation seminars or transition courses will include topics of college survival, campus resources, study skills and introduction to learning. Academic seminars with uniform content may be focused on a theme or major discipline but will have structured topics similar to extended orientation seminars. The academic seminar will vary based on the department or home of the course and may include common reading. Pre-professional seminars are generally found when students are entering specific fields of study such as engineering, business or education and focus on required program areas and certifications. The basic study skills seminar is typically offered to students who may be underprepared for academic work and will offer successful student essentials such as note-taking, test-tasking, resources and reading skills (Saunders and Romm, 2008).
Many colleges assign new students common readings such as the program at Gustavus Adolphus College that has been in place since 2000. A committee of faculty, staff, and students select the book a year in advance. First-year students and their orientation leaders read and discuss the common book as part of the college’s orientation experience. The book is read during the summer, discussed during first-year orientation courses and again during an opportunity to meet the author of the book in the fall semester (Twiton, 2007). Common readings are often connected to a first-year experience program and form a basis for discussion in English classes or include discussion with professional staff or faculty members before the fall semester (Benjamin et al. 2007).
Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) state the relationship to living on campus and persistence to graduation remains positive and statistically significant even when compared with a variety of student demographics. Student affairs professionals can build on these findings by strengthening academic integration and developing living-learning environments that intentionally maximize opportunities for students (Benjamin et al. 2007). First-year experience programs that promote the on-campus living experience as opposed to commuting contribute to increased retention and student success.
Learning communities are small groups of students who generally take one, two, or more courses together and may live in the same residence hall. They may take a variety of forms, including linked courses or themed courses. Grouping students based on academic interests, and increasing out of classroom experiences are common to learning community programs. Career exploration, introduction to university resources, peer mentoring, tutoring, and faculty mentoring are typical offerings found in learning community courses. The learning community initiatives that have emerged across the country over the last two decades demonstrate the potential that exists when academic and student affairs professionals partner for retention efforts (Benjamin et al. 2007).
Financial Support for First-Year Programs
Just more than half of institutions participating in 2006 National Survey of First-Year Seminars report housing seminar courses in the academic unit of the institution (Tobolowsky, 2008), while substantial numbers of first-year experience units including orientation, residence, and learning community programs are often administered from student affairs units which include student activities, dean of students, and academic success offices. Enrollment deposits, sometimes called admission acceptance fees are one source of orientation and first-year program funding. These fees, charged to enrolling students, support orientation staffing and programming in addition to other administrative services related to the matriculation of the student. Another source of revenue for first-year programs is the tuition dollars collected from for-credit seminar courses. These fees may be distributed directly as revenue to the unit offering the seminar course or in the form of resource allocation support, as in the case of student affairs units. More comprehensive first-year programs will frequently offer faculty buy-out options to departments to engage expert teaching faculty in the first-year program.
Evaluation of First-Year Programs
Substantial work in the evaluation of first-year programs is available to confirm that attention to students in the transition to and early semesters of the college experience provides positive impact on student retention. The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education which grew from the Policy Center on the First Year of College, have each provided significant scholarly research and assessment of the initiatives geared toward first-year students. The Foundations of Excellence self-study outlined by the Gardner institute provides a comprehensive guide for any institution seeking to more closely examine their ability to positively affect students in the first college year.
Alexander and Gardner (2009) suggest that our next evaluation strategies for the first-year experience must be willing to closely examine the core or general education curriculum, the practice of large first-year lecture courses and the pattern of hiring part-time or adjunct faculty to teach in a majority of first-year courses. These areas have generally been exempt from the critical analysis of student retention impact. Until we can explore all areas of the first-year college student experience, we cannot truly expect to facilitate change and growth in retention.
Current Issues for First-Year Programs
As Alexander and Gardner (2009) suggest regarding assessment and evaluation, institutions must be willing to consider all intricacies of the first-college year. They note that many campuses suffer “retention fatigue” defined as a condition that spreads quickly when the conversation focuses not on what students learn and can do but on the minimal expectations that a single focus on retention may represent (p. 19). Any direction toward real reform in the first year must include and engage all university faculty, not just the administrators and programs coordinators frequently charged with the retention task (p. 19).
Also at issue is that better coordination and integration of programming must occur. It is time to make first-year programs an intentional, institution-wide strategy. Alexander and Gardner (2009) assert that the potential impact of the first-year experience would be far greater if programs were more integrated, less competitive, and less duplicative. Until institutions can be willing to commit to a central location of responsibility for retention and success in the first-college year, they will not be able achieve the full extent of student achievement.
First-year experience programs can achieve more depth, understanding, and improvement in student outcomes by moving assessment beyond the basic targets, engaging all faculty and staff, integrating and applying responsibility, and creating a clear structure for the first-year student. While programs are valuable and necessary, they are rarely sufficient to transform the first year. Change and reform in the first college year require a broad and supported campus action and assessment effort attending to all students. First-year experience programs and successful transitions to college lead to success for students and institutions.
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Appalachian State University (2009). Wautauga global community. Retrieved November 14, 2009, from http://wataugaglobal.appstate.edu/pagesmith/18
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