Small Changes, Big Results: How “Re-imagining the First Year” Is Changing the Way We View Student Success

rfy-postcardThe undergraduate students of the 21st century in America will include significantly greater numbers of low income, first generation and students of color.  Many of these students will not be as well prepared for college as some previous students.  Yet it’s not simply how many students are college-ready.  In the rapidly-changing circumstances and demographics of this new century, a companion question will be:  How many institutions are student-ready?  How institutions react to this new generation of students, particularly low income, first generation, and students of color, will not only determine how many of these students succeed; it will determine how many of our institutions succeed.  With students paying more than state pays for higher education, success for our institutions will be inextricably linked to the success of our students.  But the stakes are even higher.  Student success will determine our success as a nation, as a society, and as a democracy.

The first year of college is a critical period that shapes students’ impressions of the university and their place in the campus community. It’s when they forge relationships with faculty and other students, explore majors and career pathways, and develop skills that will help them persist through graduation.

The importance of the first year is even greater for students who are the first in their family to go to college or who have been historically underserved by higher education. With little prior exposure to academia, they’re not sure what to expect and even minor academic struggles may lead them to feel that they don’t belong in college. Consequently, the gap in graduation rate between these groups and their traditional student peers remains large.

Universities have developed dozens of strategies and programs to aid students in navigating their first year, and many are backed by evidence for their effectiveness. Yet the problems of retention and graduation persist. Why?

That’s where Re-Imagining the First Year (RFY) comes in. Our aim is to redesign the first year of college to ensure greater success for all students, with a special emphasis on those historically underserved by higher education, such as low-income, first-generation, and students of color. We believe that changing the college experience for students during this critical first year is key to achieving the goal of increasing postsecondary degree attainment.

We’ve convened 44 colleges and universities from all over the country and asked them to undertake evidence-based interventions in four areas: institutional intentionality, curriculum, faculty and staff, and students. The 44 institutions are collaborating as one massive learning community, sharing their progress in real time and catalyzing change on a grand scale. The project is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds, and led by my co-director Jo Arney and me.

So what does that collaboration look like, exactly? So far we have:

  • Built a repository of promising practices, which are then tested and refined. Each practice comes with annotations about implementation strategies, common problems, and effective solutions. These practices include everything from block scheduling to gateway course reform, intrusive advising, predictive analytics, and many more.
  • Developed a robust online platform where members of the consortium can “work out loud,” crowdsourcing solutions and engages with each other on a weekly basis around current activities. So far, we are astounded by the level of commitment and frequency of communications among our participating institutions.
  • Developed a set of progression metrics for measuring how well students are doing in their first year.
  • Designing a new set of first year courses which are interdisciplinary, collaboratively built, with highly engaging content and a civic focus.  
  • Engaged national experts on first year reform to provide advising to sub-sets of institutions within the consortium. We have four national advisors, each with a cohort of 11 institutions. Each consultant is in charge of helping their institutions while working in concert with the others – a strategy that is both efficient and customized enough to provide quality support to campuses.

One of the things that we’ve learned from this effort is that innovations don’t need to be complicated or costly to be effective. Take one example of an intervention that worked: revising campus communications with students. Based on the work and presentations from David Yeager, a psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, some of our campuses noted that the tone of their academic probation letters could be discouraging students from returning after their first year, sending a signal that “you don’t belong here.” The text of the letters was changed to become more positive and supportive, communicating to students that they needed to take action, but that probation was a process – and that it was still possible for them to succeed. The data is still coming in but preliminary results suggest that the strategy has indeed succeeded in encouraging more first year students to seek assistance, talk to their advisors, and remain in school.

We are not yet finished with the first year in our three year project, so we have a great deal of work ahead of us. But I hope I can continue to provide you with updates as our work continues.   After all, this is not a drill – students are on campuses right now who need their institutions’ support to make it to graduation. As much as we love pilots and tests, we know that ultimately these promising innovations need to be brought to scale if we are to truly make a difference. And we can make a difference. In the words of George Mehaffy, AASCU’s Vice President of Academic Leadership and Change, “let us embrace a philosophy that we have the power to make changes that will alter the lives of so many of our students…nothing is written, until we write it together.”

Follow the Re-Imagining the First Year project on Twitter at @RFYaascu

rellisRobin Ellis is the Operations Director for the Re-Imagining the First Year (RFY) initiative at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). Robin comes to AASCU from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi where she worked in the capacity of a Development officer, Grant Administrator and Project Manager for more than 13 years. Robin received her Bachelor’s degree in international relations from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas; her master’s in public administration from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; and is currently a doctoral student in higher education leadership at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

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