The letter alerting Cal State Northridge students that they were being put on academic probation was pretty blunt and scary: shape up or risk getting kicked out.

Enter a national project called “Re-Imagining the First Year of College,” aimed at reducing college dropout rates during and soon after that first, vulnerable year in college.

Cal State Northridge signed on and one of the first things that changed was the tone of the probation letter. Now a more supportive message tells students with poor grades how to get help “as you strive to return to good academic standing.”

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The goal is to flip the traditional question of whether “students are ready for college” to one about whether “institutions are ready for today’s students and how to provide services if they are struggling.”

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The new, gentler letter aims to let students know that probation “is not a death sentence,” said Cheryl Spector, campus director of Academic First Year Experiences.

That school is among the six CSU campuses — including Dominguez Hills, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, Monterey Bay and Long Beach — and 38 other universities nationwide that won spots to participate in the Re-Imagining project. Begun last year by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and scheduled to last through 2018, the Re-Imagining group aims to be a clearinghouse of ideas and programs to keep new students on the path to a diploma.

“There is no silver bullet because students leave school for a variety of academic, financial and personal reasons,” said Jo Arney, Re-Imagining’s program director.

Given the national statistics, the Re-Imagining project has work to do.

On average, 16 percent of the students who started at its participating colleges in recent years did not return as sophomores. There is a wide range among the six participating CSU schools, from about a 29 percent dropout rate at Humboldt to just 5 percent at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which is known for its more rigorous admissions standards. (Among participating schools in other states, the highest freshman dropout rate is 57 percent at Harris-Stowe State in Missouri.)

While it is too soon to say whether revised probation letters and many other initiatives have had a significant impact, officials say they expect improvements as reforms take hold and spread beyond the 44 schools. The project also will be collecting data on how many credits freshmen take and how many pass all their classes. The ideal is for students to pass 30 course units in their first year.

The push to retain freshmen is in part a response to the rising numbers of students who are under-represented minorities and the first generation to attend college in their families — many of whom may not have enough home guidance about college success, according to Arney. The goal is to flip the traditional question of whether “students are ready for college” to one about whether “institutions are ready for today’s students and how to provide services if they are struggling,” said Arney, who is on leave as an associate professor of political science and public administration at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse, which is one of the 44 participating campuses.

The schools are examining and adopting such changes as improved counseling, coaxing and prepping student to take advantage of faculty office visiting hours, creating computerized early warning systems that alert schools mid-semester to students who may be at risk of failing classes, providing small grants for emergency costs, revising first year introductory courses and establishing group learning communities in various subjects. Some schools are beefing up efforts to find out why students left school and offering help to return.

What might seem to be easily solvable issues for some people can trip up students who face the stress of juggling studies with off-campus jobs and family responsibilities, said Spector at Northridge, where 22 percent of freshman did not continue last year. So even small reforms can be important. “If we are going to lose students, I don’t want it to be something that could have been prevented or, worse, something that we might have caused,” she said.

Much of Re-Imagining dovetails with simultaneous efforts across the CSU system to drastically improve its graduation rates by 2025. Recent statistics show that only 23 percent of CSU freshmen finish in four years and 59 percent in six years; the goal is to raise those to 40 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Among other steps, the system is dropping its non-credit remedial math and English courses that have been a stumbling block for thousands of students and replacing them with for-credit classes with extra academic support. Too many students had not passed those remedial courses and gotten so discouraged that they left school, officials said.

The AASCU invited member campuses to apply to join the Re-Imagining group and the winners generally were chosen either because they needed help keeping freshmen or were seen as successful models that could advise other schools, Arney said. Other campuses accepted include Northern Arizona State, Sam Houston State in Texas, Winston-Salem State in North Carolina and Framingham State in Massachusetts. As AASCU institutions, they tend to be regionally focused public schools that are not as elite or research-oriented as the University of California or the University of Texas.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Strada Education Network are funding the initiative. Some of the money pays for travel to conferences and some will be used to help campuses design pilot programs in freshman seminars and internships. Beyond any grants, participants say belonging to the national group gives them ammunition if they face resistance to change on their home campuses.

Humboldt State saw it as “an opportunity to learn from other campuses, an opportunity to pick people’s brains to get best practices and get some feedback about what we are doing,” said Alexander Enyedi, campus provost and vice president for academic affairs. He said he hopes to reduce the percentage of freshmen who do not return from the current 29 percent to about 20 percent as soon as possible.

Humboldt, located in the state’s northern reaches, faces geographic challenges. While it is enrolling more minority students from Southern California, the long distances from students’ homes can worsen homesickness and make it difficult if a crisis erupts at home or at school, Enyedi said. So it is important to help create a sense of community on campus, he explained.

Humboldt has told the other colleges in the Re-Imagining group about its programs of shared learning communities for incoming science students. Those groups take weeklong research-oriented field trips to forests, rivers and mountains before classes start and the material is revisited in several classes throughout the year. That helps with bonding as do continuing study groups, he said.

As a result of Re-Imagining, Humboldt also changed its probation warning letter and is starting an early alert system for professors to let counselors know which students appear headed for a D or F and should be offered extra tutoring or other support.

Northridge too is improving and expanding its early warning system as well as holding seminars for faculty on how to make students feel welcome at office hours and use those visits productively, according to Spector. Another change adopted from Re-Imagining was revising the formal label for students who have not yet chosen a major from “undeclared” to “exploratory.” That might seem minor, but Spector said it confers more respect as students investigate which majors appeal to them and could lead to careers.

Cal State Dominguez Hills is adopting similar efforts and has been encouraged by the Re-Imagining group to pay close attention to financial hardships and family responsibilities of “students who walk away,” according to Bridget Driscoll, associate vice president for retention, academic advisement & learning.

“Our students who stop out, usually due to unforeseen life challenges, are just as valuable, just as important to us, as the students who are still with us,” she said. Campus advisors reach out each semester to find out why those students left and what it will take to bring them back, including a review of financial aid. “Those students need to know they are still a valued part of our campus family and have a door to come back,” Driscoll said.

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