Over the past 20 years, the attention that colleges and universities have paid to the first year has grown exponentially. The reasons for this phenomenon are multiple and include changes in demographic characteristics of the students themselves, concerns about the high rate of dropout that peaks between the first and second year, and recognition that the first year presents a unique opportunity to engage students in the habits of learning. The vast majority of American postsecondary institutions are currently offering one or more special initiatives focused on helping first-year students make a successful transition to higher education. And higher education literature abounds with what are described as “best practices” in a variety of first-year programs. But heretofore, campuses have lacked any systematic, valid definition of, or standards for, first-year excellence that go beyond a single “best practice” program to a broader characterization of a campus’s total approach to the first year. While colleges and universities are often hesitant to embrace “standards” or to measure themselves against external benchmarks, they nevertheless are hungry for models of excellence, for approaches that work to produce higher levels of student learning and retention.
In early 2002, the Policy Center on the First Year of College (now John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education) launched a project to identify and honor “Institutions of Excellence” in the first college year (drawn from all sectors of American higher education). From a national pool of 130 nominees, 13 campuses were selected because of their high achievement of five broad criteria developed by the Policy Center. These institutions were featured in a 2005 Jossey-Bass book, Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College. The Foundations of Excellence project builds upon this effort through intentional collaboration of researchers and campus-based practitioners to develop and vet mutually agreed-on standards for the first-year–standards that could be used as both an aspirational model and a means of measuring a campus’s level of first-year excellence.
The Foundations of Excellence project began in February 2003 with an open invitation to over 900 four-year campus chief academic officers at member institutions of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). These campuses were invited to participate with the Policy Center in the development of standards for the first year, which we termed “Foundational Dimensions® ” or “Dimensions” for short. Over 200 member institutions of both organizations agreed to participate in the project and to establish campus-wide “Foundations Task Forces” to consider an initial short list of six Dimensions developed by Policy Center staff members, John N. Gardner, Betsy O. Barefoot, Randy L. Swing, Stephen W. Schwartz, and Michael J. Siegel, our Penn State research partners under the leadership of Patrick T. Terenzini and Robert D. Reason, and Edward Zlotkowski of Campus Compact. Foundational Dimensions statements were designed to be defining characteristics of an institution’s effectiveness in promoting learning and success of every first-year student. Learning and success include content and academic skill-building, higher order cognitive skill development, psychosocial development, and persistence in degree completion.
Task forces were encouraged to edit Dimensions statements, delete any that were judged to be irrelevant, or add additional statements. The collective work of 219 task forces resulted in a number of changes to the initial Dimensions statements and the creation of additional Dimensions.
During the 2003-2004 academic year, the Policy Center assisted 12 AASCU and 12 CIC campuses, selected from the larger group of 219, in piloting a process for using these Dimensions statements as a means for assessing the first year of college. These select 24 colleges and universities, called “Founding Institutions,” were involved in a highly intensive year-long assessment project, involving both qualitative and quantitative measures, to measure their campus’s achievement of each Dimension.
The Foundations of Excellence Project requires a new type of assessment–one that does not rely solely on quantitative measures or institutional research expertise. Rather the engine of this process is the institutional task force. Pilot project participants provided consistent feedback to the Policy Center about the value of the task force as a meaningful structure for undertaking broad, campuswide evaluation of the first year.
In our initial communication with participating institutions, we suggested that each task force include faculty, student affairs professionals, academic administrators (ideally the chief academic officer), institutional research or assessment officers, and students–individuals who rarely sit in the same room for any length of time to focus on the first year. We further suggested that before beginning its analysis, each task force undertake a process to educate itself about the institution’s first year. To that end, we provided a template for investigation called the “Current Practices Inventory” (CPI). The CPI provided a structure for each task force to gather information about (a) various existing first-year policies and programs, their purpose, when they were established, and how they are evaluated; (b) how the campus or various units define “first-year student” and when those students enter the institution; (c) student demographic characteristics including gender, age, race or ethnicity, and first-generation status; and (d) existing studies that provide data on entering students and their progress. For virtually all participants, this Current Practices Inventory represented the first and only campuswide comprehensive review of the first year. Participants discovered policies of uncertain origin or rationale, programs that duplicate each other, and incomplete campus information. For instance, the majority of institutions found that they had no data on the number or percentage of first-generation, first-year students. This process of task force education assured that all task force members had essential knowledge about the first year which enabled them to make accurate judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of their institution’s first-year efforts and to plan for improvement.
As could be expected, the many voices on each task force provided different, and sometimes diverging, perspectives on the first year and made the process of reaching a collective judgment on any single performance indicator challenging. But the conversations and debates were invaluable and provided a useable model for other kinds of campus assessment, including, but not limited to, assessment of the first year.
A natural outgrowth of measuring an institution’s current level of achievement is recognizing the need for change, and the Dimensions statements are clearly suggestive of actions that a college or university might take to improve the first year. Many task forces discovered ways they could immediately improve the first year and initiated actions during the self-study process.
With continuing support in a major renewal grant from Lumina Foundation for Education and with two smaller grants from USA Funds, the Policy Center expanded its pilot work with four-year campuses in 2003-2004 to embrace the burgeoning two-year sector of American higher education in order to develop a self-study and strategic action planning process of assessment that would apply to all sectors of American higher education. Therefore, in the spring of 2005, with co-sponsorship from the League for Innovation in Community Colleges and the American Association of Community Colleges, the Policy Center launched a pilot for two-year colleges. Eighty-seven institutions responded positively to the invitation to create campus task forces to vet the original Foundational Dimensions developed and used by the four-year institutions. That process resulted in a revised set of Dimensions for use now by two-year campuses. In addition, the Policy Center then selected from a total of 72 applicants, a national cohort of ten two-year Founding Institutions. In 2005-2006, these campuses engaged in their self-study and improvement planning processes. All costs of this pilot were underwritten by a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education.
In 2006-2007, the two-year institution pilot for 10 campuses was followed by a second national cohort of 14 two-year colleges.