John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Has Been the Impact of the Great Recession on the First-Year Improvement Initiative?

I wish I knew. Or maybe I don’t. I have been accumulating all sorts of horror story anecdotes. But I don’t have any hard data. Even raising this question for the purposes of posting this blog has served a useful purpose for me: I shall resolve to try to offer a better answer by having us collect some empirical data on this.

This spring, the non-profit organization which I lead, conducted an internal study of what had been the results of a process we have now offered to 167 colleges and universities: a planning self-study assessment process known as Foundations of Excellence® in the First College Year. What we particularly wanted to know was what has resulted from the “action plan” that we have helped each of these campuses develop to improve their students’ beginning college experience. And we found for those campuses that did not experience a high level of success in implementation, two major contributing variables: 1) change in senior leadership; and 2) financial problems.

Well, change in senior leadership cannot be attributed primarily to the Great Recession although all the stress from this economic catastrophe may have been the last straw leading some senior leaders to give up administration, return to teaching, and their families, and/or retire. But the other factor, financial problems, certainly can be attributed to the recession.

To be more balanced though, I have an equal or greater number of anecdotes that this year many campuses have further strengthened their efforts to support new students, in part, because of the recession. The students need more help than ever and so do the institutions to maintain their enrollment. So, my jury, the jury, is out.

I write these reflections as I fly across the Pacific to the annual International Conference on The First-Year Experience, an event I first organized in 1984. I plan to check out there what has been the impact of the world-wide recession on first-year improvement efforts. One immediate impact: this conference has only one third the number of participants it enjoyed three years ago when last this meeting was held in Hawaii.

-John N. Gardner

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