The First-Year College Experience: Strategies for Improvement

Jeffrey M. Kelly

edited 4/13/14

Why Focus on the First College Year?

Throughout the past several years, American institutions of higher education have been the focus of intense scrutiny by students, parents, legislators and the media. Much of this scrutiny has been generated by the fact that while the cost of pursuing a degree in higher education continues to rise, retention and graduation rates have remained stagnant. ACT, which has been collecting data on first to second year retention rates since 1983, reported that only 68.3 percent of all first-year college students returned to the same institution for the second-year in 2005, and that this information is “remarkably similar to results in previous years.” Although the data varies widely across institutional types, this information can be seen as one of the reasons why colleges and universities are being held more accountable than in the past.

Retention, especially the retention of first-year students to the second-year, is an important measure because it has a significant impact on perhaps the most important measure to colleges and universities: graduation rates. According to Levitz, Noel, and Richter, attrition rates are halved each year following the first-year. In other words, if an entering class had an attrition rate of 40 percent after the first year, the attrition rate would be 20 percent after the second year, 10 percent after the third year and so on. Based on these observations they concluded that “the most efficient way to boost graduation rates is to reduce the first-to-second-year attrition rate” (1999). This is important information because data collected by ACT suggest that there is much room for improvement with regards to graduation rates. Specifically, according to ACT in 2003, the five year graduation rates at four year institutions throughout the past 20 years have ranged from 50.9 percent - 54.6 percent and the results at two-year institutions are even more dismal (McClanahan).

If colleges and universities expect to improve their retention and graduation rates in the future, they are going to have to do so while granting admission to an increasing number of under-prepared students. According to ACT, only 22 percent of the 1.2 million high school graduates they tested are ready for college-level work in the areas of English, math, and science (2005). Given this reality, college and universities can no longer allow students to sink or swim on their own. Instead, they must organize the first college year in a way that provides all students with the opportunity to achieve success. Many institutions have accepted this reality and have begun to initiate comprehensive first-year experience programs on their campuses.

Although there is no template for how the first-year experience should be organized, the research does offer key principles that must be a part of all first-year experience programs. This paper will explore the first-year experience by first offering a brief history of the first-year experience movement. Following the history, the paper will review three specific organizational strategies, based on the research, for improving the administration of the first-year experience.

A History of the First-Year Experience

The notion of having specific programs or staff devoted to first-year students dates back to the mid-1600s when Henry Dunster, then president of Harvard University, organized tutors and graduate students “to counsel and befriend younger lads” (Morison, 1936b, as cited in Dwyer, 1989). However, it has only been in the past twenty-five years that a specific focus on the “First-Year Experience” came about. The impetus for this movement was the creation of a seminar course by the University of South Carolina in 1972 known as University 101. According to Morris and Cutright, University 101 “launched the national and international movement known as the first-year experience” (2005, p. 349). Ten years after this course was created, the director of the University 101 program, John Gardner, and his colleagues held a national meeting on the freshman seminar at the University of South Carolina. The meeting was such a success that the 175 attendees requested that another meeting be held the following year. Gardner and his colleagues listened and in 1983 they held the First Annual Conference on the Freshman Year Experience. As interest in the Freshman Experience continued to grow, Gardner and his colleagues at the University of South Carolina created the National Center for The Study of the Freshman Year Experience in 1987 (Morris and Cutright).

The impact of the programs that began at the University of South Carolina can in part be viewed through surveys conducted by El Khawas in 1987 and 1995. In 1987, the year that National Center for the Study of the Freshman Year Experience was created, El Khawas found that only 37 percent of colleges and universities throughout America were “taking steps to improve the first year”. This survey was repeated in 1995 and the percentage had increased to 82 percent and it is believed that the number would be even higher today (as cited in Barefoot, 2005). Further evidence regarding the increased interest in the first-year experience can be found in the fact that the meeting on the freshman seminar program that began in 1982 recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, drawing over 1,600 faculty and administrators from colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad. In addition, the National Center for the Study of the Freshman Year Experience remains in existence today, although it is now referred to as the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Improving the First-Year Experience

In an attempt to improve retention and graduation rates, colleges and universities have been focusing more efforts on the first-year experience, which Gardner, Barefoot and Swing define as a “composite of many efforts, structures, and processes, both intentional and unintentional, that are common, yet unique, on American campuses” (2001). Among the many efforts that colleges and universities have implemented to help first-year students achieve success are new student orientations, first-year seminar classes, academic advising, supplemental instruction, learning communities, student activities, and residence halls for first-year students only. Although most colleges and universities are taking steps to improve the first-year experience for their new college students, the efforts that are being made are not always being done in an organized and coordinated manner. According to Vincent Tinto, “there is no one specific type of successful retention organization and/or successful implementation strategy” (1993, p.148). Instead, as noted by Betsy Barefoot, “the key is to find an appropriate organizational mechanism for focusing on the first-year in order to facilitate cross-functional communication and create a coherent and meaningful first college year” (2005, p.60). But how do you find such an organizational mechanism and what might it look like? The next section will respond to this question by identifying and discussing three specific strategies for improving the organization of the first-year experience.

Put someone in charge

Gardner, Barefoot and Swing, in their work entitled “Guidelines for Evaluating the First-Year Experience at Four-Year Colleges” recommended a series of questions for colleges and universities to consider when evaluating their first-year experience. The first question they suggest must be answered is “who, if anyone, is ‘in charge’ of the first year on your campus?” (2001). While this may seem to be an obvious starting point, it is one that is often overlooked. In 2000, the Policy Center on the First Year of College engaged in the first-ever comprehensive national survey of the first-year. Among the topics the survey explored was the notion of who is responsible for managing the first-year experience. The study included two surveys, one focusing on first-year curricular practices and the other focusing on first-year co-curricular practices. The results of the curricular survey found that the primary responsibility for the first-year curriculum was widely scattered, with the chief academic officer being the most common response (42.5 percent). Regarding the co-curricular survey, only 48 percent of the respondents identified having someone responsible for the first-year co-curriculum, with the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs division as a whole being the most popular responses. Only 6 percent of the respondents reported having a director of the first-year as the person with primary responsibility of the first-year co-curriculum (Barefoot, 2005).

According to Barefoot and her colleagues at the Policy Center on the First Year of College, “the absence of centralized or focused responsibility for the first year, in either the curriculum or co-curriculum, is a central problem on many campuses. When first-year initiatives are one of multiple responsibilities in a major institutional division or for a senior administrator, they are less likely to command focused attention. Rather, they become just one more in a long list of important responsibilities” (2005, p. 51). Therefore, one recommendation for institutions that are seeking to improve the overall quality of their first-year experience program would be to designate someone on campus for whom first-year programs is their sole or primary responsibility.

Create a Standing Committee

While the research is clear on the importance of having someone in charge of the first-year experience, it also highlights that the success of the program cannot, and should not, be a one-person job. In a recent edition of the journal of Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, Wesley Habley, co-author of a national study on what works in student retention, noted that while it is important for someone to be responsible for retention initiatives, “institutions shouldn’t expect that individual to tackle the issue himself of herself” (2005). Gardner, Barefoot and Swing suggest institutions ask the following as they evaluate their first-year experience: “Is there any kind of standing committee that oversees or advises the units with direct responsibility for various aspects of the first-year?” (2001).

A standing committee consisting of faculty, staff and administrators sends a clear message that the success of first-year students is a campus-wide initiative and not simply the responsibility of those working in the first-year experience office. In addition, it helps to address a common problem on many campuses in which efforts directed towards helping first-year students achieve success are “self-contained, uncoordinated, and even unknown to each other” (Gardner et al., 2005, p. 6). The composition of such a committee should include representation from academic affairs, student affairs, institutional research, and of course, the person or persons who are “in charge” of the first-year experience. The role of this standing committee can range from providing advice to those charged with implementing the various first-year initiatives to actually assisting in the implementation of these initiatives.

Regardless of the scope of the committee, a more important characteristic of the committee should be the amount of access the group has to the senior administrators on campus. Gardner, Upcraft, and Barefoot recognized the importance of having such access by noting that committees with “access to the highest levels of institutional policy development and decision making will keep first-year student success high on the list of institutional priorities for institutional leaders” (2005, p.518). Therefore, a second recommendation for institutions seeking to improve their first-year experience program would be to create a standing committee with a selected group of faculty and staff, along with at least one high ranking administrator to help ensure access to the senior policy makers on campus.

Engage Faculty in All Aspects of the First-Year Experience

While the importance of student retention cannot be overstated from an institutional perspective, first-year experience programs must be careful not to make it the sole focus for their existence. According to Gardner, when retention becomes the primary focus of the first-year experience, standards tend to be lowered and, as a result, faculty are less interested in participating in efforts to improve the overall experience for the new students (2006). This is an important point for first-year experience offices to be aware of because “without the support of a meaningful number of faculty, first-year efforts will inevitably suffer a kind of second-class citizenship in the academy” (Barefoot, et al., 2005, p. 388).     

Gardner, Upcraft, and Barefoot recommend involving faculty in all aspects of the first-year experience and making sure they are appropriately rewarded for their efforts through tenure or other forms of promotion. They go on to say that “faculty will have more influence on first-year student success than anyone else, or any particular program or service, so they must be encouraged to become actively engaged in first-year student success” (2005, p. 518). In addition to engaging the faculty, serious commitment from academic deans, division directors and chairpersons is critical to help ensure that appropriate resources are being allocated for first-year student success in the classroom (Gardner, et al, 2005).


According to Barefoot, retention has been a primary focus of college and university administrators throughout the past twenty years (2004). Yet, despite this emphasis, too many college students fail to advance beyond the first year of college. Some of the responsibility for these high attrition rates no doubt rests with the students themselves. However, colleges and universities have a responsibility to reevaluate how they are trying to improve the first-year experience. There is no question that there are many challenges facing American higher education, from under-prepared students, to shrinking budgets, to increased pressure from state and local lawmakers. However, we owe it to our incoming students to give them every opportunity to succeed. This paper has attempted to identify strategies for organizing the first-year experience that will hopefully increase the likelihood of student success in the first college year.

Works Cited

ACT, Inc. (2004). What Works in Student Retention? (Research Report). Iowa City, IA: W.R. Habley and R. McClanahan.

ACT, Inc. (2005). Crisis at the core: Preparing all students for college and work. Available

Barefoot, B. (2004). Higher education's revolving door: confronting the problem ofstudent drop out in us colleges and universities. Open Learning, 19 9-18.

Barefoot, B. (2005). Current institutional practices in the first college year. In Upcraft, M. L., Gardner, J., Barefoot, B., & Associates, Challenging & Supporting The First-Year Student (pp. 47-63). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barefoot, B., Gardner, J., Cutright, M., Morris, L., Schroeder, C., Schwartz, et al. (2005). Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First-Year of College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dwyer, J.O. (1989). A historical look at the freshman year experience. In Upcraft, M. L., Gardner, J.N, and Associates, The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Surviveand Succeed in College (pp. 25–39). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, J.N. (2006). Plenary Address at the Annual National Conference on the First-Year Experience, Atlanta, GA .

Gardner, J.N., Upcraft, M.L., & Barefoot, B. (2005). Principles of Good Practice for the First

College Year and Summary of Recommendations. In Upcraft, M. L., Gardner, J.N, Barefoot, B., & Associates, Challenging & Supporting The First-Year Student (pp. 515-524). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, J.N., Barefoot, B.O., & Swing, R.L. (2201). Guidelines for evaluating the first-year experience (four-year college version) (2nd ed.). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Levitz, R., Noel, L., & Richter, B. (1999). Strategic Moves for Retention Success. New Directions for Higher Education, 108, 31-49. Retrieved February 22, 2006, from Academic Search Premier Database.

Morris, L., & Cutright, M. (2005). University of South Carolina: Creator and standard-bearer for the first-year experience. In Barefoot, B., Gardner, J., Cutright, M., Morris, L.,   Schroeder, C., Schwartz, et al, Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First-Year of College (pp. 349 – 376). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.