A newly released study indicates that rich and poor students who graduate from college achieve similar income levels as adults, no matter the income of their families. This is an exciting finding, for it suggests that the American dream is still obtainable, despite growing economic inequality.

But college graduation rates — particularly those of low-income and first-generation students — are not as good as they should be. This lack of success in college wastes the potential of thousands of students, while limiting the capacity of our economy.

We know that there are a series of strategies and programs that can dramatically improve student retention and graduation rates. But, too often, implementation has proven to be a problem.

USA Funds’ Lorenzo Esters, left, joins Mehaffy after the presentation of the USA Funds RFY grant in 2015.

Re-imagining education
To address these implementation issues, we created the three-year project “Re-Imagining the First Year of College (RFY),” supported by USA Funds® and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

RFY seeks to identify and test a series of programs, strategies and tools that will increase retention rates and success for all first-year college students. The project, which began in January 2016, involves a diverse group of 44 campuses that are members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

As part of the initiative, a team from each participating institution is developing a campus plan for innovation in students’ first year. Members of that team are administrators, faculty members, student affairs professionals and students.

Themes for change
In the first year of the project, as we have engaged in this work with our campuses, we have found ourselves addressing several recurring themes:

  1. How do you build a commitment to simultaneous, scalable change? What we’ve seen is modest — almost timid — efforts at innovation. It’s easy to be innovative if you are not trying to be comprehensively innovative. But the era of pilots and boutique innovation is over. What we now must have is large-scale innovation that dramatically changes the student success profile for a campus. This innovation requires multiple sets of changes across all parts of the enterprise. It is a daunting challenge, but we see examples of campuses that are achieving remarkable results.
  2. The most fundamental problem with American universities is that they were designed for us, not for our students. Classes offered at inconvenient times. Administrative offices in separate buildings. Services that are not available at the times that students need them, or are available only in distant locations. These examples and a host of others grow out of an organization designed primarily for its faculty and staff. In their 1995 Change magazine article, Robert Barr and John Tagg put it this way: The core problem with higher education is that our institutions were designed as teaching institutions, not as learning institutions, confusing means and ends.
  3. Two factors in institutional change stand out: culture and leadership. A 2005 AASCU study examined 12 high-performing institutions to determine the critical factors that contributed to high graduation rates. The study repeatedly found that a campus culture that supported student success, by assuming some of the responsibility for success, produced higher graduation rates. Strong institutional leadership that emphasized the campus obligation to student success was key. Now the challenge of how to change campus culture is a constant topic of our work.
  4. Some student failure is not the fault of students but of the structures, policies and practices we have put in place. We have to examine the conditions we created that contribute to student failure. Arcane language, a complex and often unforgiving system to navigate, and a host of other factors all contribute to student failure. And these factors — under our control, not the students’ — have the most deleterious effect on low-income and first generation students and students of color.

Promising approaches
As our 44 RFY campuses have designed new policies, strategies and practices, here are some approaches we think are most promising for redesigning the first year of college:

  • Belonging: Having a growth mindset both in student self-perceptions and in academic design.
  • Pathways: Providing well-defined pathways, detailed degree maps, and alternatives to college algebra.
  • Careers and meta-majors: Placing special importance on these choices in the first year.
  • Remedial: Offering co–requisites and summer bridge programs.
  • Course redesign: Reworking gateway courses, focusing on learning outcomes, including high-impact practices in all courses, and developing classes that focus on student interest and engagement.
  • Advising: Using a team of professional advisers, informed by data analytics.
  • Predictive and data analytics: Building in early alerts, based on communications with faculty and advisers.
  • Faculty hiring and development: Focusing on new faculty selection, extended onboarding, faculty development, and greater support for adjunct faculty.

This project, in summary, is both sobering and heartening at the same time. The work of changing an institution is enormously complicated, with a huge array of forces at work, many working in opposition to one another. But the campuses in the Re-Imagining project are alive with energy, excitement and commitment, engaging in substantive conversations and altering long-existing practices to contribute to student success.

Perhaps most importantly, I have been struck by the belief that, in helping more students succeed, we are helping our country succeed. This is work that all of us in higher education must undertake.