John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

New Frontier for the First-Year Seminar

John N. Gardner

As many of my readers will know, there are multiple terms used to describe a near universal course in US higher education designed to improve the success of beginning college students. The correct academic nomenclature for this unique course genre, which has been around since 1882, is “first-year seminar.”

But many campuses have adopted terminology originally developed by publishers of college textbooks for these courses: “college success” courses and/or “student success” courses. And there are many institution specific names for these courses such as my own University 101 course at the University of South Carolina.

These courses were designed for beginning college students. And while I have had a number of anecdotal reports over the past quarter century of the course concept being adapted to the high school setting, I had never observed any such activity at scale. One version of a secondary school offering would be for ninth graders as they transition into high school, not college. The other versions would be the archetypal college success course offered for high school students at their high schools, or on a college campus, or on line.

However, I recently had the opportunity to visit San Jacinto Community College in Houston, where to my astonishment they are offering their college success course for ALL high school dual credit students. So we are not talking here about a few sections for a boutique program for a special population of fast tracking high school students. This is an institutionalized, College-wide effort, for all new matriculated students, all dual credit students, all students in their Early Colleges. And these students do this either as their first course of dual credit or in the first term if they are at the college level.

This is a tribute to the success this course has had over the past decade of promoting greater levels of subsequent success for students who complete the course when compared with students who did not participate in the course. This level of success outcomes led the College to decide to make this course mandatory.

There is a bigger picture here, of course, and that is the question of when should “college” begin? These educators are realizing that to wait until students are actually in college may be too late for some and not as effective for others if they had started earlier in the pipeline.

So what should we be calling these courses for students who are still technically in high school? In what ways should we be adjusting the content?
What kind of professional development should we be providing for the instructors? Is there content in some college success courses that would not be appropriate for high school students? What will be the implications of students who take this course before actually entering a college or university? Will they be shortchanged in any ways by not having the more conventional “college” success course? Time—and assessment—will tell. But we really do need to push ahead and learn what are the outcomes.

Because the first-year seminar is a highly imitative concept, this model will surely be imitated. I will be watching—and supporting—that with great interest. Kudos to San Jacinto Community College.

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