Innovation in College & Career Preparation

College Success Begins With the First Year

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo L. Esters, Senior Program Director, USA Funds

It’s a well-known fact that the first year of college is a critical time for student success. Roughly one-quarter of the first-year students enrolled in four-year programs fail to make it to their second year. This high attrition rate is due to a wide range of factors, including selecting the wrong college program, challenges adjusting to the college environment, failing to connect socially, academic problems and financial challenges.

Improving the percentage of students who persist to their second year of college can benefit students, postsecondary institutions and taxpayers. Students who leave college early fail to earn the degree that enhances their prospects for a quality career and a fulfilling life.

Fortunately, there are universities that are willing to take a fresh look at the experience they provide their first-year students. Last week the American Association of State Colleges and Universities announced that 44 public universities are participating in a new initiative, “Re-Imagining the First Year of College.” This USA Funds®-supported initiative will bring together teams from each of the participating universities to form a learning community that will explore, implement and disseminate proven practices for enhancing student success in that critical first year of college.

USA Funds’ Lorenzo Esters with George Mehaffy, AASCU’s vice president for academic affairs, after the presentation of the USA Funds RFY grant, at a meeting of chief academic officers at AASCU member schools, on July 23, 2015, in Portland, Ore.
Esters and George Mehaffy.

I recently asked George Mehaffy, AASCU vice president for academic affairs and project lead for Re-Imagining the First Year of College, to respond to a few questions regarding the project. Below are his responses.

Q: Why is this project important to AASCU and to our nation?

This is the largest and most ambitious project in AASCU’s 50+ year history. So for all of us at AASCU, the stakes are very high. But frankly, the stakes are much, much higher for our students, our country and our institutions. This may be the most important work any of us have ever undertaken, for students, for our country, and for our campuses.

There’s no question about the impact of student success for students. Students without a college degree are often doomed to a life of limitations. In many different ways — career, earning power, outside interests, personal fulfillment, and a host of other measures — a college degree is life-altering. For our country, the number of students with college degrees predicts our future success in a global economy. For our democracy, more college degrees predict a stronger democracy, as citizens with college degrees vote more, contribute more, volunteer more, and participate more in countless ways in our democracy.

Q: What core beliefs will undergird this project over the next two years?

There are three core beliefs that undergird this project.

  1.  We do not need any more pilots, tests or trials. We have a large body of research that demonstrates that we know what to do to improve student success for all students, particularly low-income, first-generation students of color. We now need to take things to scale. We don’t have a knowledge problem, we have an implementation problem.
  2. We are smarter collectively than we are individually. The 20th century was the century of the solitary expert. The 21st century will be the century of crowdsourcing. I believe that, if we implemented all of the practices that we collectively know about, we could dramatically increase rates of retention, engagement and graduation success. The question is whether we have the courage to do what needs to be done to improve student success.
  3. Students are not excused from their own responsibilities in this formulation. But students aren’t customers. That’s a terrible analogy. They are not buying a commodity from us. In education, the professor and student who work together collaboratively usually achieve the greatest educational outcome.

Q: What are the key areas on which this project will focus?

One key concern that animated this project was the observation that campuses are constantly piloting and experimenting, but far too often, that’s all that happens. Projects never go to scale. So to encourage innovation at scale, we’re asking that institutions undertake innovations simultaneously in the following four key areas:

  1. Institutional Intentionality (looking at administrative structures, budgeting, building a culture of obligation).
  2. Curriculum (infusing personalization software, redesigning courses, reducing choice).
  3. Faculty and Staff (creating faculty and staff incentives for working with first-year students, creating opportunities for collaboration between academic and student affairs).
  4. Students (focusing on the non-cognitive factors of belonging, mindset, advising systems, and career focus for students).

Now, I’d be the first to tell you there’s nothing magic or sacred about those buckets, but that scheme probably includes, in one way or another, all of the major areas of innovation.

Q: Through USA Funds’ Innovation in College and Career Preparation strategy, we seek to seed partnerships between traditional higher education providers and new providers, and facilitate private and public partnerships. How will you do that through this project?

As I look out across the landscape of innovation, I believe that many of the innovations we are committed to undertaking cannot be done by institutions themselves. We need the talent, the implementation expertise, and the technology support that so many innovative practices require. In other words, we need the support of corporate partners.

We have offered a Request for Proposals to a number of our corporate partners. For this project, we anticipate that our corporate sponsors will become corporate partners. Many of those corporate sponsors and potential corporate partners will be in attendance in our meetings, listening to the discussions and seeing how they might assist us in reaching our goals, either as individual corporate partners or as a consortium of corporate partners. I think our project, and the work at the institutional level, will be greatly enriched by the addition of these corporate partners. Some of them may want to work with a small group of institutions. Others may be more ambitious.

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