Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Does the First-Year Matter?

More than ever this is a story we must be telling. Like the most important things in life (e.g. “I love you”) the most important messages must be delivered repeatedly and explicitly. I raise this because almost daily I am hearing anecdotes about the ravages of the “Great Recession” on first-year programs—and their reduction or elimination.

I have seen this before: in the recessions of 1980-82, 1990-92, and 2000-2002, but this one appears to be more extensive. First-year programs are often vulnerable for multiple reasons: they are newer, may be led by younger and non-faculty educators, often disproportionately serve disadvantaged students; are not based in traditional academic departments with more power, and have more part-time and marginalized employees, etc.

So in these times you need a mantra that cannot be said too often. Why does the first-year matter? Because it is that critical period of transition when:

1. Students receive their foundational coursework

2. Students form their attitudes towards faculty, staff and the institution

3. Students do or do not develop college level study habits

4. Students may or may not overcome negative attitudes towards formal education acquired during their previous educational experiences

5. Students are assessed to give us base line assessment data in order for us to determine how we add value and to demonstrate accountability for such outcomes

6. Students should be introduced to service opportunities

7. Students learn our institutional mission and the roles and purposes of higher education

8. Students have their first college experiences which form the “foundation” for ultimate mission attainment

9. Students choose those all important relationships with other students that will influence their success

10. Students make important choices about which groups to affiliate with and thus be influenced by

11. Students begin the acquisition of lifelong adult habits of mind and behavior

12. Students develop and improve time and other self management skills

13. Students decide whether to persist or drop out.

How could there be any doubt that the first year matters? Unfortunately, the question is not asked often enough. What matters is that you develop your own mantra and rationale. I hope this will inspire you.

-John N. Gardner

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