John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

33… But Who’s Counting? I Am!

February 21, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have just attended the 33rd Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, held in San Diego, February 15-18, 2014.

Over 1800 higher educators attended from 16 countries. The meeting is truly an “international” meeting without being designated as such.

Representatives came from over 700 institutions, disproportionately four-year, a tradition over 33 years try as hard as we have to invite more participation from community colleges.

When all the first-timers were asked to stand at the opening session, I estimate more than half the audience stood up. Obviously, the future of any movement depends on a dependable stream of newcomers.

Subjectively, my take was the majority of attendees were entry to mid level staff and administrators, and disproportionately student affairs professionals. But they were definitely joined by many academic administrators and faculty to create a partnership focused on one sole objective: increasing first-year student success. Unfortunately, that definition of success has now become characterized primarily as “retention” and the preeminence of the academic mission now seems much less in evidence. This convening of multiple types of higher educators has been a consistent goal since 1982, the beginning.

California post secondary education was very well represented. This struck me as testimony to the fact that California is back, getting beyond the worst of the recession. And the CSU System appears to be the big investor in first-year work, allocating 12 million dollars for efforts to bring at least one High Impact Practice to every one of its 450,000 students.

The topic most likely to be represented on the agenda was another conference tradition, the same subject the very first meeting was about: first-year seminars. It is very hard for organizations to escape their traditions. And sometimes it is just appropriate to make the best of them. Thus, this conference remains the go to professional meeting for professional development regarding first-year seminars.

In my wildest of imagination, I would not have anticipated 33 years ago the size of the shameless commerce contingent that has latched on to this gathering: some 125 participants were exhibitors. What are they selling? Primarily potions and elixirs promising to assuage the evils of attrition. The conference has become the vendors’ equivalent of the promised land populated by several thousand desperate administrators and staff in a relentless search for the holy grail of retention, a quick fix, which now all they have to do is buy it.

I use the occasion of the conference to talk to as many attendees as possible, often randomly, and usually very informally. I did not interact with one who didn’t just rave about the value of the conference.

I am often asked if I knew in 1982 what all this was going to amount to. Of course, I did not. But I did know that I was on to something really big and that it was very important to hang in there. And, at the very least, that is exactly what happened. I am gratified far beyond what the above words convey.

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