John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What a Difference the First Year of College Can Make

What a Difference the First Year of College Can Make

I have devoted most of my exactly fifty-year career to trying the make the first year of American higher education a more positive experience for our students—in terms of their learning, personal growth, maturation, satisfaction, retention, self-esteem, and more. But I never stop asking what more/else can we do? And I keep looking for illustrations of what we do accomplish.

The traditional end of the conventional academic year for full-time college students is a good time to be reflecting on a question like this. So, what did we accomplish for our first-year students this particular year? And what a year it was! The year of Donald Trump’s election, deep national divide, and great disaffection, despair and anger on the part of students who rightfully believe that others do not think their “lives matter.”

Of course, we are all profoundly shaped by our own life experiences, from the past of long ago and the very immediate present. Hopefully, experiences in both and all domains give us college educators more empathy to understand our students, and in this case, what difference does the first year make.

Just the past April, I had to give a talk in Dallas and that happens to be the city where my wife, Betsy Barefoot, has a grandchild who chose to go there for her undergraduate education. Her choice was driven by many variables including the wishes of her parents, but mainly it was for the opportunity to play college varsity volleyball. She had been an all-around outstanding high school student with stellar academic, athletic, leadership and interpersonal skills. If ever there was a kid who was prepared for college this was one.

So, I secured her willingness to have me come out to campus and pay her a brief visit. She gave me a great gift, namely about three hours of her time. This included a tour of the campus including her residence hall room and a lunch with her significant other, a young man whom she had praised in advance to me because as she put it: “He is a real gentleman; he listens to me and we talk a lot.” She was having a very successful academic year. Dean’s List for first semester and looking like she would have an encore performance for second term. Making an extremely good social adjustment. Lots of friends. Nodded, smiled, and spoke to many students as she walked me around the campus. Obviously was very at home at the place. Compatible with all three of her room mates. Enjoying the volleyball even though she had been injured and was going to have to have knee surgery. This is an incredibly cheerful, positive, open, enthusiastic young woman. She remains focused on pursuing a long held academic and career goal: becoming an elementary school teacher. She is very focused, highly motivated. She maintains regular and excellent communication with her parents, who are the foundation for a very functional family with four children.

So, I asked her if she thought college had changed her any. She paused for a long time and finally shared that she thought it had—“somewhat” …”maybe a little……” But there was a tentativeness about her response. I wondered if it was because she hadn’t really been asking herself about that. Or if it was because she just had such a fundamentally positive disposition about everything and almost everyone. I concluded that she really didn’t know. She hadn’t had enough time or detachment to make a judgement about that.  She allowed as if she thought it had made her “somewhat” or “slightly” more “independent.” I have known this student since she was born, for 18 years, and if there were any changes as a result of the first year, they were very subtle and not discernible to my well-trained eye.

And it was inevitable that I would compare her to my own first year, what I had been like at the start, and where I found myself at the end of that year.

I think she arrived at college well adjusted. I did not.

She made good friends immediately. I did not.

She was immediately successful academically. I was not

She was on a varsity athletic team. I was on a junior varsity team (lightweight crew).

She had received an academic scholarship. I certainly did not.

She was the first child of her siblings to go to college. So was I.

She didn’t confess any initial homesickness to me. I was terribly homesick.

She had a declared major and a career orientation that is very strong, very certain. I had no major. Never did. Thank you Marietta College for not making me chose a major.

She terminated a “from back home” romantic relationship in the first year and entered a new one. I did neither. But should have.

She was very disciplined as a student. I was not.

She ended up on the Dean’s List after first semester. I ended up on academic probation.

She had fellow room mates who were also making a successful adjustment to college. I did not. My first room- mate was so homesick that he left college (and me) after the first six weeks! I didn’t know you could leave college. It wasn’t an option my father had given me! He was replaced by a second room-mate. He was a heavy drinker, often as he lay nearly prone in his bunk, from which he acquired the nickname “Bunky.” He also dropped out, flunked out, after the first year of college.

I got no sense that she had changed her views about organized religion. I changed mine, drastically, from a budding agnostic to a convinced agnostic. She had entered with a strong Christian faith, I had not. My introduction to sociology course destroyed what conventional religious notions I had left.

I finished the first year of college having rejected my parents’ political persuasion, a deep loyalty to the Republican party. I had never heard a good word about the Democrats until such came out of the mouths of some of my professors. My wife’s grandchild has two liberal Democrats for parents and I certainly caught no wind that their first-year student had changed her political persuasion.

I was not making good choices about my romantic life. She appears to be!

I had become very engaged with a number of professors. I was thriving in my relationship with my academic advisor. I visited many of my professors in their offices and some of them in their homes too. I have no sense that she has this kind of relationship with her faculty even though both of us had started at small, private colleges.

She is already planning a study abroad in the second semester of her sophomore year. I never developed any plan for study abroad. She is already way ahead of me in that regard.

She will end the first year with a much higher GPA than I did. All I can say in summary comparison on this point is that at least I managed to get off academic probation by the end of the first year.

She has a summer job lined up that is compatible with her career aspiration of being an elementary school teacher: that of a camp counselor. She has had this job lined up for a year. I had no job lined up when I went home. My father, not liking what he was seeing college do to me, thought I needed “a job where you will be in the real world and see how the other half lives!? He arranged a manual labor job for me in a factory for a company in which he was a senior executive. So, I became a unionized steelworker making beer cans in the pits of urban New Jersey.

In sum, the jury is in on me. It is still way out on this grandchild. She shows far more promise at this point than I did. But I am betting that college changed me far more than it will change her. I needed that. Maybe she doesn’t. We are very different people. I think I finished the first year more intellectually engaged, more intellectually transformed than she is. She is on her way far more to attaining her career objectives than I was at the same point. Hey, I didn’t have any career objectives. She is ending her first year happier than I, much more satisfied.

The first year of college was good for both of us. But she sure does show much more promise at the end of the first year than I did.

Let’s bring this back to you my reader: what are you trying to facilitate for your first-year students?

What do you most want for them?

What are you providing to make that happen?

What kind of priority are first-year students at your institution?

Are you trying to “transform” them in anything approaching the manner I think my college transformed me?

What kind of experiences did you have in your first year of college that serve as your experiential base of empathy for your own first-year students?

My first year of college was a case study for how a college could have done a whole lot more for me and how I could have done a whole lot better. This has profoundly influenced my work, my life, and thus many, many other lives as well. What can you say about your impact on first-year college students?

And by the way, I didn’t have a university 101, college success, first-year seminar type course. But I sure could have benefited from one. My alma mater has one now, for sure! And I am part of the reason for that.

What We Tell our Students May Matter More Than We or They Realize at the Time………..

When I was a very homesick, unsure, unfocused first-year student, failing most of my courses, one day my political science professor, R.S. Hill, asked me after class “Mr. Gardner, would you like to be a good student?” He really caught me by surprise, that he would ask me anything at all and what specifically he asked me. I stopped and thought about his question and answered that I would, silently acknowledging to myself I had no idea what I would have to do to become a “good student.” His answer astounds me to this day, some 56 years later. He said: “Well, for starters you would start reading a good newspaper.”

John: “And how would I go about doing that; what is a good newspaper?”

Professor Hill: “Well, of course, The New York Times. There is no other like it. You should read The Times because then you won’t need anyone, including me, to tell you what some politician or judge said or wrote. You will be able to read the full text of what was said or written and then you can decide for yourself what the meaning and the importance of the message.”

John: “Ok, sir, well how would I go about doing this?” (I truly didn’t know because I had grown up in a staunch Republican household where my father thought—and said—that The Times was a “communist newspaper” and he wouldn’t allow it in the house.” So, I knew that to read such a paper would be an act of sedition defying my father who was paying to send me to this college where this professor was giving me such advice.

Professor Hill: “Come with me, Mr. Gardner, and we will walk right now two blocks to “People’s News” where if you don’t want to read the daily copy in the College library you can have your own personal copy. The Times comes in every morning on the 11.22 Greyhound from Pittsburgh (the bus terminal being one block from the news store) and it will be available to you every day by noon. The Greyhound is never late (I had never thought of the Greyhound bus as an agent of civilization and an intellectual lifeline to the rural American heartland in southern Appalachia in Ohio and no one today would extend such a compliment to any airline).

And that’s how I started reading the daily Times, which I still do quite faithfully, in the paper edition, even though I also have a subscription for the on-line edition which I read when I am traveling.

And all because a professor introduced me to an adult habit. He explained also to me that “Mr. Gardner, you should know that in addition to you, the other most influential people in the world will be reading that same paper on the same day and will know then what you will know.” And fifty-six years later I still want to know what the most influential people in the world are reading each morning. And I know one who lives during the week at 1600 Pennsylvania who doesn’t like what he reads in The Times.

A few weeks later in the term, I had an appointment with my academic advisor, a professor of speech, one Dr. Thomas Fernandez. He reviewed my mid-term grades and made this pronouncement: “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” I left his office and removed the dagger he had inserted in my self-concept. I didn’t quite know if what he said could be true. I knew I wasn’t doing well, failing most everything. But was I really the “stupidest kid” the guy had ever advised?  But I made a decision anyway: to get another advisor. I was pleased it was easy to actually switch advisors, something many of our students probably ought to consider doing. And my successor advisor became one of the keys to my eventual success in college, Professor Kermit Gatten. He really embraced me and I began to flourish. He and his wife had me in their home for visits and meals numerous times. And his advice, which I took, served me incredibly well for the balance of my college career.  I later was told that my first advisor ultimately became a college president in Texas. Wonder how many other people he labeled as “stupid?”

Two years later, in another political science course, designated as “American Political Parties”, the professor was lecturing on the legal actions leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education, declaring legally segregated schools both unequal and unconstitutional. One of the preceding cases he discovered was one banning the infamous southern “white primaries,” which the Court struck down in 1944 in Smith vs. Alright. The only reason I remember this now is because of what followed. I asked the professor, Eugene Murdock, what the court’s rationale for its ruling was. He replied to me: “Mr. Gardner, I do not know. How would you like to do some research and determine the answer to your own question yourself, and then report to the class what you found?” It was not a rhetorical question. I knew he meant it. I did not think he was trying to pressure me, let alone punish me for asking him a question to which he did not know the answer. I thought he was just being honest. I later realized that he was also being a wonderful role model for the professor I was going to become, but didn’t know that at the time—specifically, when a student were to ask me a question to which I did not know the answer, I would so indicate. Well, I accepted his invitation; did the research; determined the Court’s rationale; and made an oral presentation to my class on what I had learned. In my four years of undergraduate school, other than Speech 101 when I did have obligatory public speaking in class, this was the only presentation I was ever allowed to make in any course in any class. That’s right, one in four years. No wonder it really stood out in my mind and still does. I was nervous about doing this before my peers and my professor. But it went well. Professor Murdoch praised me publicly. And I soon realized that this one gesture on his part had truly given me a sense of empowerment and presence I had never experienced before.

On another occasion during college, I was studying in the Library and a professor I respected greatly walked by, stopped, and approached my study carrel and said: “Mr. Gardner, I just read your paper and it was truly excellent.” To have unsolicited praise like that from someone whom I knew was REALLY gifted intellectually (unlike me, a neophyte just beginning to learn how to be a college student) that pushed me on to a cloud nine and boosted my confidence and self-esteem.

Two weeks before I was to graduate, someone broke into my rental house and stole only my lecture notebooks, for all my courses. What a hostile act. I was in a small college and many of us students knew each other all too well. And I was known as a compulsive note taker for whom his lecture notes were a critical ingredient to his academic success. I was very active in campus politics and, obviously, had made an enemy. I went to one of my professors and asked for an incomplete for the term that would give me time to reconstruct my notes. He agreed and told me he would allow me to take a make-up, take home unproctored final exam—with the words: “Mr. Gardner, I trust you. I know you are a person of honor.” I have been trying to live up to that ever since. One by one my professors were writing the script of my adult life. I didn’t know it then. But I know it now.

How are you writing the script for your students? What are the succinct verbal, or written, messages are you sending them that they will remember for the rest of their lives, and that will shape the development of their character and self-concept profoundly?

Several months ago, my early forties son related to me his recent professional encounter with a woman in South Carolina with whom he talked about her experiences at the University of South Carolina. He asked her if she had taken University 101 as a first-year student. She said she did. Then he asked her who her professor was. She said she didn’t remember but she remembered things he said and taught her. As she shared an illustration of the professor’s advice to her my son realized that she had to be talking about his father, me. Apparently, the professor admonished the students at the end of the term in December not to make any major life decisions (such as to drop out of college or transfer, or get married or get divorced) as the end of first term of college, especially at holiday time was a very sentimental, often emotional period and not a good context for making rational decisions. She told him that she practices that advice to this very day, over 30 years later.

We have no idea what we say to our students that may really sink in at present time or later. We just have to believe that the messages we send them do matter and hence chose our words intentionally and affirmatively.

What Do You Give Your Students to Read—to Get Them to Discover What Matters Most?

Recently I was asked by one of my publishers to complete an author survey. And one of the questions was truly impossible for me to answer as requested. It read something to the effect “what was the book that has influenced you most significantly? What I found impossible was to choose one! I found the exercise interesting and worthwhile not only because of the sheer number of books that I would so classify as having been of “most significant influence”, but what those books were and especially what time of life was I exposed to these written ideas/experiences, and how this would help form my ideas on social justice.

So, they began coming to me almost as a crescendo.

There were two books in my first-year of college, when I was doing terribly on the academic front and was lonely, homesick lovesick. And they were mandated by one of my first-term professors to read and to be the subjects of an oral examination if I wanted to raise my final grade in Speech 101 from an F to a D. Most valuable D I ever received. He had me read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), a book really for academics but one that sold well beyond that for laypeople. Riesman, a Harvard professor, lawyer and sociologist, one of the greatest of the 20th century, and also a scholar of the American college and university presidency. The Lonely Crowd was an argument that America produces two kinds of people: the Inner Directed Man and the Outer Directed Man (the direction being in reference to who and what are our influencers, inner vs outer oriented stimuli. My professor wanted me to examine that question for myself. What kind of person was I—was I becoming—or could become? Riesman analyzed a number of our culture’s favorite stories for children and he forced me to think about how I had been influenced by the stories I had read as a child. And nineteen years after being made to read his book, Riesman wrote me an unsolicited letter in 1980 raising some questions with me based on an article of mine he had read in the Journal of Higher Education, about one of my—and as it turns out—his favorite subjects. Riesman was also the founder of Harvard’s first-year seminar, in 1959, two years before I became a first-year student.

The other book was Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm, a German psychoanalyst, who escaped from the Third Reich and wrote a compelling analysis of why the German people, at the time the most literate of any of the European democracies, had voluntary given up their freedoms in 1933. The book was really about what for some of us is the burden of freedom, the challenge of making decisions on our own. And there I was, as the professor knew full well, a young man who had abused his freedom by overcutting this class, six times in fact. Why do some college students, for example, voluntarily decide to give up a number of their freedoms to join certain groups that make many of their decisions for them (such as with whom to associate), groups especially like fraternities and sororities? This book invited me to consider the uses, the choices, albeit the abuses, I was making with my freedom. And I concluded that I needed to reconsider some of those choices. And it was several years later, also while in college, that I read Fromm’s perennial best seller, The Art of Loving, which argues that before anyone can love anyone else, they have to be capable of self-love, meaning self-respect.

And then there was my reading of Plato’s Republic in the fall of my junior year, in a political philosophy class. We examined some of the most important questions that any society has to constantly be in the process of deciding: who should rule? Plato was having Socrates argue that philosophers should be kings. And the related question, that my whole adult life has been in pursuit of: what is justice? By then I was getting the idea that what was really happening to me in college is that I was learning that the questions can often be more important than the answers. To have a meaningful life you have to be asking and pursuing the right questions. In this same course, on the day of class that the professor was going to lead us through Plato’s argument about “who should rule” our class was interrupted by the shocking news of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 20th, 1963.

And then also that fall, in a course on Transcendental American writers, I was taking a very deep dive in the complete works of essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have never been the same since reading Self Reliance. Thank goodness. I was really ready to receive Emerson’s call to intellectual individualism. And I was so fortunate I had a professor who knew just how to do that so skillfully. I didn’t go to college expecting that I would come to love Emersonian prose but that’s exactly what happened. The course influenced me to do a research project to ascertain what might have been the influence on Emerson of New England Unitarianism. And I thought that to understand this question and possibility even more thoroughly I should try to grapple with it experientially. I did so be joining a small handful of other congregants who attended the weekly service of the Marietta, Ohio Unitarian Church. I learned that that faith was all about what my college experience had become: a search for the truth, my truths, which were being discovered by me through reading and interaction with the interpreters of those readings, my professors. What powers they had over me. And I allowed them to help me discover my own powers for discovery, and then to influence others.

In my junior year, I took an elective biology course in a course titled “Conservation.” We were required to reach Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; the work that is generally credited with launching the now more than fifty-year-old “environmental” movement. Before this book, I had not given one thought to what I and my fellow men and women were doing to our environment. This work really changed me.

In my senior year, I read Joseph Heller’s first novel, Catch 22. Sadly, Heller was a one author great thinker. Try as hard as he did in a succession of following books, all of which I faithfully read, none of them did for me, let alone any of the critics, like what Catch 22 did. The first time I read Catch 22, I really didn’t get it, the “it” being the power of his satire of the insanity of bureaucratic life and thinking, as personified by Heller in the US Army of World War II. But two years later when I was on active duty in the US Air Force, and read Catch 22 again, then it hit me. He had finally showed me how bureaucracies work, often making some of their members literally crazy, by the non-rationality of some of their arbitrary rules and processes.

So, as I was recalling what I had read of greatest influence, and when I did that reading and thinking, that all these greatest influencers had come during undergraduate school. How could this be? This doesn’t mean I stopped reading upon graduating from college! Absolutely not. But I can’t think of anything that I have read since college that had the same level of formative influence on my most important understandings—of myself, my work, my culture, my role in society, human group and individual behavior—you name it. I can only conclude then that I was in a unique period of openness to new ideas, to being influenced, to self-discovery. But that openness had to be facilitated, nourished, encouraged, reinforced. And my professors and a few fellow students were the ones who did so. I was developmentally ready, hungry even. And the college experience was there for me, ready for me, able to develop me in only ways that it could. I am so thankful.

I have often asked my workshop audiences what they remember reading that had some influence during their first-year of college. Almost to a person, each group member can recall something specific. Maybe this is just because I work in the world of the academic bubble. These people liked being in college and so they have stayed in it for their adult lives. They truly were influenced. I know that once I experienced this influence I never wanted to leave it.

I have had much less success asking my students, particularly first-year students, what it is they read before college that has influenced them. They struggle with this, in part because no one has asked them this before.

In conclusion, I ask you: what were the great written works that influenced you? And what do you have your students read with the hope that this work and your guidance of them to and through it will be of significant influence? I know, it took me a long time here to get to my question. And the question for you should be much more important than the answers I have offered, just as has been the lasting impact of some of the questions I learned to ask in college, especially: what is justice? My whole adult professional life has been devoted to that question.


April 12, 2017Julie HellerInsights0


Recently I was privileged to be part of a five-person author team to both have a book published and to do a presentation on the main ideas of this book as a “featured session” at the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, our nation’s largest regional higher education accreditor, in Chicago, on April 1, 2017. No joke. Not about April Fool’s Day.

The book is The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most; Peter Felten, John Gardner, Leo Lambert, Charles Schroeder, and Betsy Barefoot; Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Our leaders for this project, Peter Felten and Leo Lambert, Professor of History and President, respectively, of Elon University, prepared questions for each of us authors to speak to in this session. I want to share below one of the questions that was directed to me and the answer that I prepared in advance to offer.

If the same question were put to you, I wonder what your response would be about “The Big Disconnects.”

John, our book is filled with example after example of uplifting good practices across a wide spectrum of institutions.  We know what constitutes good practice.  And yet we know hundreds of institutions are beset with shockingly low graduation rates, very poor retention rates, and are revolving doors of failure.  You have been in this business for more than forty years.  What are the big disconnects in American higher education?


  1. Colleges not designed for students we now have.
  2. Faculty rewards system not designed to reward/motivate what majority of students need most—more focus on teaching and availability to students.
  3. Students preferred learning styles not in sync with ways majority of faculty teach.
  4. Focus on retention has led to focus on the margins: not the heart of the academic experience, gateway courses, where we have the greatest number of student failures.
  5. Faculty are viewed as source/cause of many problems rather than the solution.
  6. Our values are the big disconnect: we have adopted larger societal corporate values and more of our thinking is about making money than making—-Students—learn, grow, change, aspire, and lead.
  7. Many of us are looking for the panacea, the silver bullet. There aren’t any.
  8. We are often looking outside the academy to companies to sell us what they call “solutions” usually involving expensive technology.
  9. We need to focus on what matters most—what you think on your campus, your unit—is most likely to achieve your institutional mission:







The Beginning College Experience: What Could an Engaged Board Be Doing About This?

The Beginning College Experience: What Could an Engaged Board Be Doing About This?

Note: This blog posting was written at the request of and was initially published by AGB, Th Association of Governing Boards

The blog commentary is from a former struggling first-year student who became an international authority on improving the beginning college experience, and also a twelve-year veteran college trustee! This piece will briefly examine why trustees should invest any governance time and energy considering the issue of the first-year, and then if they did, what should they know and what could they do.

Trustees should care about the first year because…

The beginning college experience relates to and is arguably the foundation for addressing many of the issues that trustees care most about, and ultimately have fiduciary responsibility for:

*student learning and satisfaction

*institutional academic and financial viability and stability

*retention/graduation rates and prestige rankings

*expectations for student behaviors in and out of the curriculum

*athletic success

*student safety

*student abuse of alcohol

*success and behaviors of fraternity and sorority members

*town/gown relations

*the baseline for assessment of outcomes which is mandatory to maintain your institution’s regional accreditation

*and many more!

The first year of college isn’t working as well for many of our campuses now as when many trustees were first-year students themselves. This poses the challenge for trustees of empathy for and understanding of what both students and educators experience as challenges with first-year students. There are many, many factors influencing outcomes of the first year, but most notably the changing demographics of American higher education, declining family incomes coupled with rising costs, under-preparedness, and a host of other variables that interfere with student success. Bottom-line: today’s higher education institutions weren’t created for the majority of the students we now serve. We continue to struggle to adapt, but we aren’t moving fast enough. College worked well for this generation, not so well now.

Thank goodness, the success of first-year students is now a much higher priority for many campuses than it was three to four decades ago. There is now a widespread movement to enhance what is generically called “student success” especially in what has been called since the early 1980’s: “the first-year experience.” And also thankfully, there is now available a great deal of research on first-year students whose attrition rates are the highest and on interventions that purport to address these retention challenges.

So what do trustees need to know about?

You need to be continually updated on, especially:

*the characteristics of your student populations, in the aggregate and in key sub populations

*what are your trend lines in these characteristics and which students are you more/less successful with, and why?

*what actions are you undertaking not only to recruit students but to retain them (and proportionately what investments do you make related thereto—many colleges spend far more to recruit than to retain students)?

*what is your organizational structure for addressing these challenges and who is responsible?

*what are your retention and graduation rates, in the aggregate and as a function of race, gender, ethnicity, first generation status, Pell eligibility, residential versus non-residential status, athletic participation status?

*how does your institution orient students (and by whom?), generate expectations in students for performance levels?

*how is academic and career advising provided to new students and by whom?

*what evidence is there of effectiveness for first-year student focused interventions?

*what are the patterns of awarding of D,W,F,I grades for students classified as first-year, in so-called “gateway courses, and how do these grades correlate with: mode of instruction; rank/classification of instructor; demographic characteristics of students; and retention rates to the following year?

*how are faculty, academic/student affairs/student success personnel working together to address these challenges?

*how does paying more attention to first-year students connect in any ways to the rewards systems for faculty and staff?

What could trustees do about the issue of underperformance of first-year students?

This is the least complicated part of the equation. It’s very simple really. Engaged boards could and should: 

  • show an interest in this topic; make it a board priority; talk about it
  • have this discussed in multiple standing committees: academics/enrollment management/finance/athletics
  • consider having improvement in first-year student outcomes be incorporated into metrics for evaluating and compensating your CEO
  • request from your administration a study of the first year with a report to the board
  • participate in discussion or focus groups with first-year students and those educators who work with them

Of all the issues cited in this piece, the one you should be paying the most attention to is what I refer to as “American higher education’s best kept dirty little secret”: outcomes in high D,W,F,I grade rate “gateway” courses. When you get to the bottom of this you will know where your students are not being successful and you will have a focus for what to do about it! These courses are the REAL “first-year experience.”

The Transfer Experience Versus The First-Year Experience: How Do They Measure Up? Here is a Simple Toolkit to Answer This Question.

March 13, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

The Transfer Experience Versus The First-Year Experience: How Do They Measure Up? Here is a Simple Toolkit to Answer This Question.

I have just returned from a stimulating professional development experience, the 15th annual National Conference on Transfer, hosted by the NISTS, the National Institute for the Study of the Transfer Student. NISTS is located at the University of North Georgia. Founded by Dr. Bonita Jacobs, their President at UNG, this work was originally birthed when she was the chief students affairs officer at the University of North Texas. The meeting has been held each year in late January/February windows in either Dallas or Atlanta. Next year it will be in Atlanta again, February 7-9.

I am interested in the transfer student experience for multiple reasons:

  1. As a national higher education system, our performance with them in terms of getting them to BA degree attainment has been miserable.
  2. Transfer is now the normative route to the bachelor’s degree.
  3. My finding and contention is that transfer is still relatively low status—that is what I am writing about here.
  4. Earlier in my career at the University of South Carolina I founded a conference in 1995 and it is still going strong; “Students in Transition” which features a track on transfer students. The next meeting will be held in Costa Mesa, CA, October 21-23, 2017.
  5. The non-profit organization ( I lead has been trying to make a dent in this low priority since we launched in 2010 our Foundations of Excellence Transfer Focus process (, an assessment and planning initiative to provide for institutions a comprehensive plan to improve transfer—which few campuses have and all need. We have engaged sixty institutions in this work: 24 four-year and 36 two-year colleges and universities.
  6. Our non-profit, Gardner Institute, is also a current recipient of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation planning grant to plan new work to integrate into high failure rate gateway courses taken by transfers digital learning components and pedagogies.

So all of the above lines of interest coalesced and brought me to this excellent transfer conference, February 15-17 for my second experience in this meeting.

In my work on transfer student success I have several dominant lenses in which I view the current status of transfers.

The first is that I see the level of attention and priority paid to transfer students as being about what that level of attention and priority was towards first-year students in the early 1980’s.

And second, and the subject of this posting, is that I am so struck by the inequities that are experienced by transfer students.

So just undertake with me a relatively brief and simple comparison of these two populations and especially how we in the academy go about treating them. A way to do this is to use what the Gardner Institute calls in its work a “policy analysis” …. basically an inventory of the policies that are directed towards transfer students and which can be used to compare with comparable policies for first-year students. Consider then the relative policies applying to first-year versus transfer students for:

  1. Application deadlines for admission
  2. Capacity for slots in any given academic term
  3. Financial aid awards—institutional monies, need versus merit based, special awards for first-year versus transfer students—amounts and eligibility guidelines
  4. Continued eligibility for such awards after first year of enrollment
  5. Eligibility for on-campus residential accommodations
  6. Application deadlines for housing
  7. Priority for allocation of available spaces in housing
  8. Eligibility for participation in student organizations, clubs, teams, student government, etc.
  9. Eligibility for leadership positions in student organizations
  10. Allocation for admission slots into high demand majors
  11. Registration priority and deadlines
  12. Availability of student organizations devoted to supporting this cohort
  13. Availability of special orientation and advising initiatives to support this cohort
  14. Availability of college/student success-first-year seminars for this population
  15. Stipulations that certain forms of student support be required versus optional for these populations
  16. The existence on the campus of a high level academic officer with specific responsibility for the welfare of this cohort
  17. In like manner, the existence of an advocate, champion at the institutional level, for the needs of this population, other than and beyond processing by Enrollment Management
  18. In like manner, an advocate at the academic unit in decentralized universities
  19. The priority for making available “High Impact Practices”
  20. The availability of such curricular cohorts as learning communities
  21. Availability of opportunities for on-campus employment
  22. Availability of opportunities for internships, practicum experiences and study abroad (with financial aid support)
  23. Internal systems of accountability for retention and graduation rates for this population
  24. A priority for addressing needs of this population as expressed in the institution’s strategic plan
  25. Being on the priority list and attention agenda for senior leaders and spokespersons
  26. A priority for gathering, analyzing, discussing institutional research data

And I am sure the above list is not an exhaustive inventory.
My prediction is that if you undertake such comparisons, you will find the transfer student cohort has drawn a very short stick. And that is our biggest challenge.

And as a mirror of low campus priority, and in part a cause of this lower priority, is the fact that the US Department of Education does not count transfer students in its IPEDS (Integrated Post-Secondary Educational Data System) model for measuring retention and graduation rates.

And hence the media’s ranking processes for institutional prestige, especially USNWR, also does not “count” these students.

So, if you buy my thesis and model here, what might we do to move the transfer experience further along to more closely approximate the status now of “the first-year experience?”

Ah, that calls for another blog posting, actually multiple postings, given that has been the focus of my work since the early 1980’s.

In the meantime, please try your version of the policy audit toolkit described above. And then act on your findings. Be prepared to have your notions of equity and social justice challenged when you remember just who these transfer students are when compared to first-year, first-time, full-time students.

I was not a transfer student and I’m glad I wasn’t. In my case, this was the luck of the draw as the adopted person I am. I was a second-generation college student, fully supported by affluent parents. If I had been a transfer student, I might not be where I am today given the biases then, let alone now, in our higher education system. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Coming…a World Boycott…?

Coming…a World Boycott…?

I have recently attended the 36th Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience. One of my great joys in life, professionally and personally, is this annual renewal learning experience. I am the founder of this conference series now 36 years running as the title states. This series of meetings until recent years was also hosted periodically in countries outside the US. At this year’s meeting there were over 1700 attendees from just over 20 countries. The attention to the first year is truly an international movement.

As I interacted at this meeting I found myself expressing special gratitude to educators who had come to the meeting from outside the country, at a time in our history when our new Presidential administration was attempting to impose a ban on entry into the United States who were members of a particular religious denomination. Not only did I want to thank these non US educators for coming to our suddenly less hospitable country, I also found my embarrassment about our change of official posture extremely embarrassing.

One of the things I have enjoyed the most over these past 36 years is all the wonderful friendships I have made with like-minded higher educators from all over the world, all of whom are working to increase the success of first-year students.

During the conference I received an e-mail from one such former international colleague whose message I am now going to excerpt and quote from where my correspondent is describing a trip he and his wife have been planning to the American southwest in late February, 2017:

“…..We are driving south on Feb.20…a few days in Palm Springs then to Scottsdale for a week and then a week in Las Vegas. We are driving back via Utah and then across to Portland via the Columbia Gorge. We will take about 5 weeks to complete our trip depending on weather. We seriously considered cancelling but because we are meeting my sister and brother-in -law in Arizona we decided to continue. We have decided that this will be our last trip to the US for several years. Our attitude towards the US has turned pretty negative and it as if we are turning against what we believe in from a moral perspective if we continue to travel there. Even though there are lots of great people there and friends like yourself, we will not be going south of the border after this trip. 

Many of our friends feel the same way. Unfortunately, the US has gone from one of the greatest countries in the world to one of the least respected. Our lives won’t change and neither will our decision to avoid the US change the direction your country is headed…..but we will feel better. Our future travel will focus on Canada and perhaps Portugal or Spain. We would love to see the Republicans wake up and act responsibly but I do not think that will happen…

Glad to hear that the FYE conferences are still going strong. I certainly enjoyed working them with you

We just heard from friends in Michigan who have lived there for 32 years that their house is up for sale and they are moving to Victoria ASAP. They have a daughter living in Toronto whom they visit frequently. The attitude of the border guards has changed drastically……in a very negative way….and they are sick of listening to their unsolicited comments………

We have heard that Sarah Palin is a possible candidate as US Ambassador to Canada……hope this does not happen because she is a joke and an insult to the entire political field…

Best wishes……

As I think about the implications of what the message communicated, I think I feel coming on a world-wide boycott of discretionary tourist travel into the United States. This is really going to hurt.


Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

February 22, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

This will be a brief piece inviting a focus on, recognition of, those on your campus who are so fortunate to have tenure. We are going to be looking to them more than ever for the leadership we need from them from their privileged vantage point with the protection of tenure.

For as long as I have been a member of the academy as a professional, there have been debates in the non-academic world about whether tenure is necessary or appropriate. And currently the question is being raised again. I was a tenured professor, from 1976-1999 at the University of South Carolina, with the majority of those years being at the highest faculty rank for my last 23 years. Since 1999 I am Distinguished Professor Emeritus, and the CEO of a non-profit organization in which I do not have tenure either as an employee or President, but rather a rolling three-year contract. I remember what it was like when I was a faculty member without tenure. In fact, in my first academic job, non –tenure eligible, I was not renewed because of my activities in a small South Carolina city initiating a local chapter of the ACLU and for suing several prominent local parties. Not smart John. I was quickly dispatched.

Once I had earned tenure I found on several matters that I needed it. One had to do with stances I took which our all-powerful Athletic Department found to be unfriendly in terms of my unwillingness to engage in certain practices for first-year student athletes. There were a few very powerful people that became very unhappy with me over my stance related thereto. And then there was my administrative coordination of a module in the University 101 course called “Sex and the College Student.” The University president got so many complaints about that from parents that a form letter was developed in response. Without tenure, I would have been really vulnerable, the educational legitimacy of using pro-active preventive education to combat the spread of the AIDS virus notwithstanding. One of our finest hours as a faculty occurred, I thought, when one of our Provosts stood up to a huge campaign mounted by thousands of right wing zealots to deny a gay faculty member a promotion. This professor, the author of a book titled Growing Up Gay in the South, had offended many on the right by his offering of a special topics course for professional K-12 leaders on the theme of “how to combat the religious right.” Admittedly, not too subtle or diplomatic. But the administration stood its ground and didn’t give in and he was promoted to full professor. And then there was the time a group of tenured faculty, including yours truly, took an official stand against a move being driven by a member of the Board of Trustees as a cost saving initiative to outsource our campus custodians. Problem: most of these employees were African Americans with less power than any sub group on campus. Had they been outsourced they would have lost the same health and other benefits that I enjoyed by virtue of my relative privilege. My colleagues regarded this potential as immoral and unacceptable in a just community. We stood up for them and the move to outsource them was blocked. Tenure does matter.

Of course, none of us can look at our careers, present or past, with total objectivity. But it is my own personal self-assessment that I never abused my tenure. I used it to take stands to advocate for students needs and best interests and to enable me to offer respectfully my counsel to my superiors with total honesty and without fear of reprisal should my opinions differ from theirs. One of the criticisms of tenure is that it protects a class of drones whose productivity decreases upon the award of this privilege. In my case I am positive that any external review of my record would conclude that I was more “productive” after receiving tenure than before its granting. And that is also true of most all of the tenured colleagues I have known throughout my career.

So here we are now, several weeks into a new presidential administration and in a sea of vast uncertainty as we all try to chart our responses. It does seem clear that the academy will be under a microscope and that we will be attacked. It is even more certain that we will be dealing with distressed students and having to make choices about how we respond to their protests, for and against actions taken by the new administration.

The times ahead are definitely going to call for courage and risk taking, particularly in the public higher education sector that is dependent on state legislative funding from legislatures the majority of which are now under the control of the political party that is most likely to retaliate against those of us they perceive as being inappropriately “liberal.” I predict that our untenured colleagues will be looking much more closely at those of us who are tenured to take the stands that our untenured colleagues can only dream of taking. They will want us to stand up and be counted. They will want us to own our power. They will say if we who are tenured don’t speak up, then who can? I write in this vein because I think it is very important that those of us who have tenure be aware that our less powerful and secure colleagues will be watching carefully how we exercise our leadership and academic freedom.

For those of us who do not have tenure, I hope you will be letting those of us who do, what you expect of us, what you need from us.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and my long-time colleague at the University of South Carolina, Mary Stuart Hunter, have been facilitating once a year at the Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, a session entitled “Spirituality, Authenticity and Wholeness in Higher Education” since 1998. This session has become a perennial favorite for colleagues of all ranks and roles who have come together out of their commitment to enhance first-year student success, to share how they are dealing in their home campus settings with the challenge of incongruity between individual values and those espoused by the highest levels of institutional leadership. A theme that we have been hearing for almost twenty years now is the desire for more conversation on campus, encouraged and framed by campus leaders, about what matters most. This involves risk taking that is best taken, now, more than ever, by those with tenure.

Please remind your tenured colleagues of their obligation to fulfill this kind of leadership expectation. I don’t need to be reminded but many of us do.

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

February 15, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

In May of 1992, my former and still cherished University of South Carolina colleague, Stuart Hunter and I, co-hosted along with James Griffith, the chief student affairs officer, an International Conference on the First-Year Experience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. There, we were approached by an educator whose request to me now seems almost prophetic in light of what has been happening on a number of American campuses since January 20.

Her name was Elsie Watt and she introduced herself as a doctoral student in US social history at Queens University, Ontario, one of Canada’s most elite universities. She explained to us that she was looking for a dissertation topic that could grow out of the history of US campus social protest movements in the late 1960’s/early 70’s. She had just learned by attending a session Stuart and I had done that the University of South Carolina’s highly regarded and widely emulated first-year seminar course, University 101, had been born out of the convergence of the civil rights/voting rights/students’ rights and anti-war movements—in the US in general and at the University of South Carolina in particular. She went on to seek our formal permission to visit the University to conduct research for a dissertation that would trace the historical origins of the course University 101 to ascertain its connections and impetus to the social protest movements. So she spent the better part of two years with us in South Carolina in the University archives, in my papers, and in interviewing scores of University officials who had been involved in any way with responding to the social protest movement which by that time was 20 years distant in time. She did complete her dissertation on this topic and its findings have long served as a reminder to me of the positive outcomes that did come about from the period of campus turmoil, a significant part of which revolved around antipathy for two US Presidents in succession: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Yes, you are assuming correctly: a number of us senior (reference to age not rank) higher educators have been experiencing Deja vu since January 20—and as Yogi Berra so famously said: “Déjà vu all over again!”

I am exhibit A of a higher educator whose life was profoundly altered by the social protest movement. Because of the Vietnam War, I was drafted and sent to South Carolina on active duty. It was the Air Force that gave me a direct order to become an adjunct faculty member in my off-duty time. I lost my first higher education faculty job because of my involvement in social protest activities (with the ACLU); that, in turn, led to my faculty position, thank goodness, at the University of South Carolina, three months after a tumultuous student riot had shaken the campus. One outgrowth of the riot was the President’s action to ask the faculty to create what became the University 101 course, to teach the students, in his words, “to love the University.” It was his thesis that we could teach this and that if we were successful they would not want to or need to riot again. And they haven’t since the course was created in 1972. I acknowledge that this is correlation and not causation. The social protest movement then further impacted me because I became the first faculty director of this initiative to prevent student riots, a position I held for 25 years.

I think it is important for all of us in higher education as we face the uncertainty of how we are going to deal with challenges of unrest on our campuses and the likely political pressure on many of us to stifle our opposition to government actions, to remember that the last time our country faced significant student protest, there were many positive outcomes! I admit it: I am looking for some upside to the changes we are going through.

So what were some of those outcomes of the social protest movement the last time we really had one:

  1. The students were a definite contributing factor to ending the war in Vietnam. That for me is the most important outcome of all.
  2. Student opposition to the expansion of the Vietnam buildup started by President Kennedy and greatly ramped up by President Johnson, contributed significantly to his decision not to seek reelection in 1968. Could students possibly bring down a President again?
  3. Student opposition to the war and the related draft for conscription, contributed to the Congressional action to end the draft.
  4. Student objections to the presence of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, programs on campuses led to a profound rethinking of this opportunity on college campuses.
  5. Student demands for greater participation in institutional shared governance where heard and met. We now all have students serving on important committees and some of us work in institutions where there is even a student member on the institutional governing board.
  6. Student demands for the ending of gender-based separate social and conduct regulations were met demanding the end of separate and definitely not equal privileges that had created inequities of practices like curfews for women but not men.
  7. Student demands for increased opportunities for participation in intercollegiate athletics were met.
  8. Student demands for greater sensitivity to the needs of formerly de jure discriminated against students of color contributed to a myriad of new forms of academic support and efforts at greater inclusion.
  9. Student demands for greater freedoms of assembly and free speech effected profound change in campus cultures.
  10. Student activism was one of the many contributing factors to the growth of the Student Affairs profession as campus leaders recognized they needed far more educators “living over the store” with the students. It’s a foolish campus CEO who doesn’t listen to her/his Student Affairs colleagues sense of the student pulse on campus today.
  11. Student activism also profoundly impacted the extent of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom including and often especially within our most esteemed research universities.

I am not going to undertake here a thorough, let alone scholarly, treatise of my thesis. This is not the forum for that kind of discourse. And I have only gotten started on my above list.

As I listen to and read about my fellow higher education leaders struggling to find the most appropriate responses to both their and our students concerns about the state of American political actions and discourse, I take heart by remembering that we rose to the occasion once before in the 1960’s and 70’s and I believe that we will again. I just hope it doesn’t take a war to generate a new anti-war movement. I am too old to be drafted this time, but not too old to serve in other ways the best interests of our democracy.