In an era of rising student debt and increasing focus on outcomes in higher education, it is more important than ever that students are provided with a solid foundation upon which to launch their postsecondary education. Student success, year-to-year persistence and retention through to graduation are reliant on more than just a rudimentary orientation. Research shows that a for-credit first-year experience (FYE) offering is one of the best ways to get students off to a good start.

I have three children in postsecondary education this year, so today’s blog topic is top of mind for me personally. Of my three children, only one them is at a school with a true Student Success for-credit course and is enrolled in it as a freshman. My other two children simply received rudimentary orientations in two different institutions. My exposure and experience in education has informed me as a father to be a strong proponent of mandatory for-credit first-year experience student success courses.

Almost every postsecondary institution offers first-year students some form of orientation, including information on student codes of conduct and basic guidance on healthy living habits. Often these are one- to two-day events which all first-term students are required to attend.

At the same time, the National Student Clearinghouse® Research CenterTM reports that overall student persistence rates from first to second year continue to hover at around 80-82%, essentially unchanged since 2009. You can download the center’s 2019 Snapshot Report here

If the operating assumption behind the freshman orientation is to provide students with at least some of the support they will need to persist through to second year, then the Snapshot Report should be troubling.

As a result, many institutions have taken to increasing the emphasis on FYE programs for their students. A recent scan of FYE programs shows efforts range from simple orientations to required, paid, first term, for-credit curriculum. 

Successful programs have a number of features in common. Specifically, each:

  • represents an entire curriculum delivered over the first term
  • includes personal assessments, reflections and other personal skill-building content
  • includes content on time management and healthy living habits
  • supports development of career and education goals and plans

Anecdotal reviews of these programs indicate that they provide students, particularly those who are first generation or part-time attendees, with a more comprehensive set of tools, leading to greater persistence.

Several studies that meet rigorous, statistically significant research standards have begun to quantify FYE persistence results. In one study, student attendance in an FYE program led to a 40% increase in first- to second-year persistence. Add in rigorous math and science courses in the first year and persistence rates could double.

Combined with anecdotal evidence, these studies suggest real benefit to students of FYE programs. They receive critical support at the time it is most needed and personal interaction with a faculty “mentor” that sets them up for success through their college career.

When considered from the institutional perspective, the potential 40% increase in first- to second-year student persistence will likely more than cover any costs of FYE program implementation.  

In fact, if you’d like a rough estimate of the impact an FYE program can have on your institution, you can find a calculator here.

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with the National Resource Center for First Year Students and Students in Transition.