Friday, March 11, 2011

Digging a little deeper: Campus initiatives beyond the first year

Betsy O. Barefoot
Vice President & Senior Scholar

This past fall the Gardner Institute conducted a new national survey to attempt to gather information about seven student success initiatives (summer bridge programs, early warning/early alert systems, pre-term orientation, special seminars, learning communities, service learning, and undergraduate research) that span the four years of undergraduate education. Yes, students do have issues even after the first year! What we learned was in some ways surprising, in some ways not surprising, and, as is the case for most surveys, left us with more questions than answers.

So what did we learn? First, we were reminded that the first year continues to be the primary focus for programs that support student learning and progression. While the sophomore and even the junior year are time periods for some forms of structured support (e.g., special seminars and learning communities), the first year continues to trump in all those categories. The “other” first-year students—transfers—receive uneven support from both public and private sectors in spite of the fact that about 62% percent of today’s students have transferred at some point in their collegiate career. We also learned that institutions—both public and private—really like their honors students! More special initiatives, especially first-year seminars and learning communities, for honors populations are now being designed than in previous years.

We also learned that there is significant disparity between student support provided by public versus private colleges or universities. Often, it’s the private sector that is doing more—more structured programs, more “required” participation, more follow up in the form of early alert initiatives, more attention to pre-term orientation. And orientation at a private college or university is more likely to be free – more public institutions report charging extra fees for orientation than do the privates.

Not surprising was the continued focus on retention. Institutions hope that every dollar they spend on student support will yield retention improvements. And while some initiatives should yield a retention payoff (e.g., summer bridge, early warning, first-year seminars), others (e.g., undergraduate research, service learning) are far more effective at changing the way students learn than they are at guaranteeing improved retention.

We were surprised that institutions often continue to do what they do in the absence of research that demonstrates effectiveness. For the seven initiatives under investigation, anywhere from 30 to 40 percentage of respondents indicated they “didn’t know” whether the initiative in question was achieving its stated objectives, often because of an absence of research.

But even though participants weren’t sure about outcomes, more of them were sure that programs were “cost-effective” – that is, that the money expended was being put to good use. Whether these opinions are based on “running the numbers” is an open question. Some educators are frightened to ask the question that legislators and trustees are asking: “Is (fill in the blank) worth the money that we’re spending on it?” Of course, we recognize that all benefits can’t be measured in dollars, but these tough times and public scrutiny will demand that we not only believe what we’re doing is cost effective, but that we also have the data to prove it.

To see an initial data summary for this survey go to

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