John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education


What is Foundations of Excellence® First Year?

Now more than ever in challenging economic times, your campus needs a strategic action plan for the critical beginning college experience. Foundations of Excellence (FoE) will yield a new vision for enhanced learning and retention of first-year students as well as priorities for resource allocation. Foundations of Excellence is a comprehensive, externally guided self-study and improvement process for the first year. The centerpiece of Foundations of Excellence is a model comprised of a set of principles that are termed Foundational Dimensions®. These Dimensions, developed by the Gardner Institute, formerly the Policy Center on the First Year of College, and vetted by over 300 four- and two-year institutions, guide measurement of institutional efforts and provide an aspirational model for the entirety of the beginning college experience (initial contact with students through admissions, orientation, and all curricular and co-curricular experiences). These Dimensions also provide an intellectual foundation for the entirety of the undergraduate experience.

The engine of The Foundations of Excellence process is a campus-based task force - a group with broad representation from across the campus. The work of the task force begins with a campus audit of the first year (the ” Current Practices Inventory “) and continues with a nine- to twelve-month process of evaluation using the Foundational Dimensions and related performance indicators (P.I.’s), and culminates in the development of a strategic action plan for campus improvement. Institutions that participate in the Foundations of Excellence process will have access to a wide array of services and support. Click here to learn what participants receive.

Participation in Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year is open to any regionally accredited four- or two-year postsecondary institution in the US and comparable educational institutions in other countries.

Why should your campus consider participating in FoE?
Over the past 25 years, the importance of the first year of college has been acknowledged to some degree by a wide range of American colleges and universities. Yet the result has often been the creation of an array of program-level initiatives, many of which operate on the margins of the first year and have only limited impact on students. Such efforts, although well intentioned and staffed by dedicated professionals, have existed in the absence of a structured model of excellence that goes beyond a single program to a broader vision of a campus’s comprehensive approach to the first year. By conducting a systematic self study under the guidance of the Gardner Institute, your campus will take a candid look at its strengths and weaknesses and, based upon its findings, develop a strategic action plan that can lead to enhanced student learning and persistence. Although such a self study is, in itself, no panacea, it is an invigorating, institution-wide experience that brings together multiple constituent viewpoints and can lead to substantive institutional change and improved student outcomes.
What the FoE process adds to existing models of first-year assessment?

The campus environment–how an institution structures the new student experience–plays an important role in determining how students spend their time, how they engage in learning, and whether they decide to return for the second year or even the next term. Yet campus assessment often focuses primarily on student characteristics rather than the institution’s policies, practices, and procedures. The Foundations of Excellence process adds an essential component to a careful analysis of the first year by enabling institutions to conduct a thorough examination of their environments and to connect findings to student-level input and outcomes data. By focusing on what they control, institutions can take immediate steps to build on their strengths and improve their weaknesses. As a comprehensive process, Foundations of Excellence goes beyond limited analysis of discrete components of the first year; instead it acknowledges the interconnected nature of the many components of the student experience. Most fundamentally, the Foundations of Excellence process is assessment of institutional behaviors, policies, and practices.

Does FoE in the First College Year link with student learning outcomes?

Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year is a self study that leads institutions to be more accountable for student learning through a) the identification of common learning goals for the first year, and (b) the auditing of learning outcomes across first-year courses. The process is not prescriptive. It does not provide specific goals for learning or measure specific learning outcomes. The core philosophy of the self study is that setting and monitoring learning goals is an important indicator of institutional excellence, and that there are many ways to accomplish this end.

Rather than directly testing students’ knowledge and skills, the Foundations of Excellence surveys and processes present an aspirational vision of learning that requires a campus to evaluate its success in a) establishing desired learning outcomes, b) communicating these to students, families, and other stake holders, c) documenting student learning with multiple sources of evidence that may include quantitative and qualitative measures, and d) using results to confirm effective practices or make adjustments. A critical step in achieving an institution’s larger goals for its graduates is developing benchmarks for student learning in the first year that guide institutional decisions and actions. The self study assures that institutions consider learning outcomes in a broader context of institutional improvement rather than narrowly focusing on the selection of a single test of academic knowledge.

Learn about what participants receive