As summer comes to an end, colleges and universities across the United States are welcoming new students through orientation and other freshman year rites of passage. But as many as one in three of those first-year students won’t make it back for a sophomore year.

Changing students’ experience during their first year of college is vital in improving undergraduate education in the United States, particularly for under served populations. That’s why USA Funds® sponsors the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ groundbreaking initiative “Re-Imagining the First Year of College.”

Through the three-year Re-Imagining the First Year of College project, or RFY, 44 AASCU institutions are working together to improve the quality of learning and student experience in the first year, increase retention rates, and improve student success. This fall they are starting to implement practices aimed at improving the first-year experience for all students — but particularly for students who are low-income, first-generation, or students of color, often the most vulnerable students.

The institutions are focusing on the areas that George Mehaffy of AASCU shared with me for a Completion With a Purpose® blog post earlier this year:

  • Institutional intentionality (looking at administrative structures, budgeting, and building a culture of obligation).
  • Curriculum (infusing personalization software, redesigning courses and providing well-defined pathways).
  • Faculty and staff (creating faculty and staff incentives for working with first-year students, and creating opportunities for collaboration between academic and student affairs).
  • Students (emphasizing the noncognitive factors of belonging, mindset, advising systems and career focus for students).

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Creating data for the sake of creating data is useless. It should continue effective practice or initiate change or improvement. Innovation without goals and measurement is just wishful thinking.

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Measuring success

Institutions often focus on data. But an important part of changing outcomes for first-year students is to also use that data to establish goals and measurements. Randy Swing, a higher education consultant who addressed a recent meeting of RFY project participants, summarized it best: “Creating data for the sake of creating data is useless. It should continue effective practice or initiate change or improvement. Innovation without goals and measurement is just wishful thinking.”

To ensure that they are most effectively addressing the barriers to college success during students’ first year, RFY participants are taking the important step of developing metrics to help identify and reduce gaps in outcomes for students.

The universities will start by working toward specific goals as measured by the following data that AASCU has determined to be key indicators for first-year student success:

  1. Credit accumulation. Data show that too few students are earning the 15 hours of credit each semester that put them on the path to on-time graduation. Institutions must facilitate students’ taking additional credit hours, as well as reconsidering their policies about credit transfer, dual enrollment and life experience credits.
  2. Credit completion. Students who do not complete the courses they start risk lengthening their time to graduation and increasing their college costs, and they also drain institutional resources. Bolstering credit completion requires successful placement policies, early warning efforts, and intervention strategies.
  3. Gateway course completion. Often the foundation on which work toward a specific major is built, gateway courses have a large percentage of new students. Improvements in these courses will have a significant impact on the first-year experience and can serve as a model for enhancements in other first-year courses.
  4. Major or program selection. Students who are undecided about a major — or who select a major to which they are not truly committed — are at risk of not completing a college degree. Institutions must establish a balance between encouraging students to select a major in a timely manner and helping them to fully explore various careers and the paths of study they require.
  5. Persistence. Students who return for the start of their second year are more likely to persist to degree completion. Persistence is an indicator of students who feel successful and supported by the institution and who are progressing toward a degree.

In early 2017 each campus will report on its progress in each of these key areas, and AASCU plans a data summit to help schools fine-tune the ways they measure their success in the project. USA Funds looks forward to learning about the approaches schools take to enhance the experience of first-year college students — and to the results those efforts achieve.