Poll: Taking First-Year Student Experience to the Next Level

by Cory Phare and Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

August 2014. Recently, we polled a group of 55 administrators tasked with directing first-year programs. Of this group:

  • For 2 in 3 administrators, assessing their first-year program is a priority; yet for one full third, this is not the case.
  • Few are looking at "student success" more broadly than GPA, student satisfaction, and first-to-second-year retention.
  • Nearly all have strong partnerships with academic advising, student support services, and orientation/transfer services – but not many have strong partnerships with other key offices such as service learning/civic engagement or multicultural services.

Though this is a small group, the poll offers an interesting, real-time snapshot of several of the challenges facing many first-year program directors.

Assessing the Effectiveness of First-Year Programs

Yet for 16 of the 55 directors polled, assessment of the first-year student experience program is either not a priority or “somewhat a priority, but with few resources behind it.” (Compare this with the National Resource Center finding that just 59% of First Year Student Experience programs have conducted a formal assessment or evaluation of their program since Fall 2009.)

Among those who are pursuing assessment, there is room for improvement. Key measures of success cited by poll respondents include first-to-second-year retention rates, demonstrated critical thinking abilities, student satisfaction, social integration, and academic grades.

Yet because first-year programs have been identified by the AAC&U as one of the truly measurable and documented high-impact practices that affect academic success and completion, there is a real opportunity here to tie first-year student experience to completion rates and career outcomes.

We may need to broaden our picture of “student success.”


Those polled also noted "defined learning outcomes" as a key measure of success.

When you define learning outcomes, make sure that there is a clear plan for assessment, and that the first-year program content is designed with assessment in mind.

As Amy Baldwin, director of University College, University of Central Arkansas, notes: "The outcomes must be aligned with the assessment methods and the content that will be covered. Too often I have seen great outcomes (clearly written, measurable), but the path to meeting the outcome is not clear or completely unconnected."

Where Your Peers are Seeing Success

While assessment remains an area for improvement, first-year program directors are experimenting vigorously with an array of partnerships and initiatives:

  • "We have developed a home grown success coaching program. Success Coaches are dedicated to helping students get the most out of their college experience. First year students will receive one-on-one attention at least twice per month from a coach who is committed to student development and success."
  • "We’re partnering with faculty in a pilot program for our business students - offering a comprehensive orientation experience - online/in-person components, extensive communication plan, etc."
  • "We provide a three day overnight experience for new international/out of province students and their parent's and family members. The session takes place prior to orientation so these students can get situated to their new country/province before becoming formally acquainted with the campus. The program is facilitated by peers from each of the academic units and focuses on cultural, social, academic, familial, financial and health/wellness transition to the institution."

Other examples include intensive collaboration with career services, long-term peer mentoring and leadership programming, and mirroring online and on-site student experiences.

Untapped Opportunities

Those polled spoke especially to the strength of first-year collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs; in fact, first-year programs are one of the few places where this collaboration exists to such a degree.

Out of 55 first-year program directors polled,

  • 47 partner with academic advising
  • 44 partner with orientation/transfer services
  • 41 partner with career services
  • 38 partner with academic support services
  • 34 partner with individual academic departments
  • 26 partner with financial aid
  • 21 partner with service learning
  • 20 partner with multicultural services

We see collaboration between first-year program directors and academic advising, academic support services, career services, and orientation/transfer services. But does this list also point us toward opportunities that may be untapped at some colleges?

  • Can first-year program directors take the degree of collaboration they have achieved with orientation and academic advising and career services, and replicate that (albeit on a shoestring budget) with service learning or multicultural services?
  • Can first-year program directors look at transition more holistically? 2 out of 3 first-year program directors polled noted that their programs include both traditional and non-traditional students. This means that first-year programs will increasingly need to be flexible enough to adapt their successful tenets to shifting demo- and psychographics of tomorrow’s institutions.
  • 2 out of 3 are also using social media to engage with students, yet few have an articulated proactive strategy to enhance program components. Can programs move beyond simply having a presence and use new media to engage with students where they already are?