John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

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.”

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