The First-Year Experience

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The First-year Experience
To those who live it, the first college year, with its range of emotions, expectations, and experiences, is and always has been important the stuff of literature and legend, of cartoon, film, and, most recently, even television (as portrayed in Felicity). Widespread institutional recognition of, and response to, the importance of the first year, however, is a late twentieth century phenomenon. Beginning around 1980 and continuing to the present, higher education in the United States has witnessed what Lee Up craft and John Gardner term a "grassroots movement" to improve the first college year (p. xiv) .At the root of this twenty year movement are many factors that span a continuum from institutional survival and self-interest to "doing the right thing" for the students themselves. As we cross into a new century, we have a perfect opportunity to take stock of the range of initiatives that for two decades have attempted to enhance the first year experience in U.S. higher education things done and things left undone. Many of us can point with pride to all we have accomplished: the programs we have designed, the funds we have "frontloaded," and, most important, the individual lives we have influenced. But many of us also continue to be disappointed and frustrated with the pervasive high rate of student dropout between the first and second year and with the difficulty we face in mainstreaming our efforts and gaining support across the campus, especially from faculty ranks. As a senior staff member in the University of South Carolina's National Resource Center for the First Year Experience, one of my primary responsibilities is to keep abreast of trends related to first-year students, such as how structures and programs, both in and out of the classroom, are changing for better or for worse. In some ways this is a daunting task because there are innumerable campus-specific program variations each accompanied by the requisite acronym. But a close look reveals that the majority of initiatives are based on a small number of well-known themes drawn from research on college students. Of course, there also continue to be other first-year practices that appear over and over for a single reason: "because we've always done it that way." Another responsibility I share with colleagues at the center is to look carefully at whether and how colleges and universities define and measure the "effectiveness" of first-year initiatives. Although most programs can potentially achieve multiple positive outcomes for students and institutions, the most commonly used mea sure of effectiveness is improved student retention. Some institutions also assess first-year initiatives with respect to whether they have an impact on other factors that correlate with improved retention, such as student satisfaction, involvement, use of campus services, and so on. But such evidence, although it may be gathered internally, is rarely published or disseminated beyond the boundaries of a particular campus. And, currently, only a small fraction of first-year programs are put to any sort of objective test to determine whether they have achieved intended or unintended outcomes. The following discussion is a broad view of the first year in U.S. higher education: how the academy and its constituent groups conceptualize the "first-year problem" and the common themes and objectives that guide the development of specific first-year programs or activities. However, a discussion of the first college year would not be complete without a focus on how we can improve the educational experience of first-year students—how we can go about addressing the complex and intractable problems that I believe we must tackle in order to narrow the gap between an ideal first college year and what for many students is the disappointing reality. The closing section seeks to identify special challenges for both educators and institutions as we consider the first college year...
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