Freshmen Persistence and the Undergraduate Experience

Once again in the midst of the ACE (American Council on Education) annual meeting, I was reminded of the real value of a national conference; its value comes from the opportunity to reflect on our challenges. The sessions, including plenary ones with people like Michael Mandelbaum, Michael Crow, and Charlie Cook certainly add to the experience of the meeting, but I have always found my greatest take-away comes from time to reflect on how we raise the quality of higher education.

This ACE meeting called attention to widespread concern with student access and success.  ASU President Michael Crow made clear the challenge that we confront in reaching President Obama’s 2020 goal for number of college graduates in his comments on the very low percentage of college-educated citizens who come from the bottom income quartile.  The questions being asked were: How do we create access for these low income students?  How do we assure that they persist and graduate?

These are the wrong questions.  Instead, we should ask: How do we create a quality undergraduate experience?  In other words, how do we create the kind of undergraduate experience that is attractive to students whose families have little or no experience with college, whose incomes don’t provide room for tuition and whose preparation is probably inadequate for college work?

Too few colleges and universities are critically examining the undergraduate experience and rethinking it for this lowest income quartile.  Yes, most have some scholarships, and yes, there are special freshman retention programs.  But are those scholarships sufficient to avoid large loans?  The for-profits are finding themselves attacked, in part, because they serve more low income and non-traditional students who take out large government-backed loans.

Are the varied freshman retention programs working?  Too few colleges and universities are evaluating the plethora of retention programs using critical metrics and following that evaluation with public support of the successful ones and swift action to discard the unsuccessful.

Too few colleges and universities are evaluating the reach of successful programs.  Just having a tutoring or mentoring program is seen as enough by some colleges and universities.  That they reach only 10% of freshmen does not receive critical attention.  A successful program really is only successful if it reaches a broad range of students and demonstrates evidence of success in their retention, academic performance and graduation.

Too few colleges and universities are examining what happens after the freshmen year, for example, to their sophomore students who may become discouraged by their major and dropout before their junior year.  Questions like the following should be asked about the admissions process and the post-freshman experience: What programs are necessary in the admissions process to create more realistic expectations for college such that those expectations are realized in the college experience?  How is engagement maintained once students move off-campus?  How effective is the undergraduate experience in responding to an increasing desire from students for application in their studies?  How effective is the undergraduate experience in recognizing cultural differences, e.g., the family orientation and commitments of Latino and Native American students?

And finally, too few colleges and universities are developing, implementing and evaluating comprehensive plans associated with the quality of the undergraduate experience.  Action is necessary if we are to raise the quality of the undergraduate experience and realize the President’s 2020 goal.  Those actions are especially necessary for the success of especially the lowest income quartile:

  • A presidential or provostial level focus on the undergraduate experience and the quality of it,
  • A comprehensive plan with widespread student reach for improving the quality of the experience,
  • Implementation of the plan, and
  • Evaluation of its outcomes with swift endorsement of successful components and elimination of the unsuccessful ones
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