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Abstract

The Freshman Year Initiative (FYI) is a comprehensive program of support designed to improve the academic success of freshmen at Fayetteville State University. Implemented in 1996, FYI is coordinated by the University College, the academic office which is primarily responsible for working with freshmen to ensure their successful transition into the University. The units within the University College that are directly involved in FYI are the Advisement/Mentoring Office, the Freshman Seminar Program, Student Support Services, the Mathematics Laboratory and the Writing Center. Since the implementation of this program, the University has seen increases each year in one-year retention rates, and the freshman class that entered in 1996 is on track to have one of the best (if not the best) four-year graduation rates since these data have been recorded at the University.

Description of Case Study

Fayetteville State University is a historically Black university and a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with total student enrollment of approximately 4300 students Baccalaureate degrees are offered through the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business and Economics, and the School of Education, while graduate degrees, including the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, are also offered by the university. While some components of the Freshman Year Initiative were in place prior to the advent of the program, FYI was fully implemented in Fall 1996 and remains in operation today.

A majority of freshmen admitted to Fayetteville State University possess characteristics usually linked to increased risk of dropping out of the university, namely, low socio-economic backgrounds, first-generation university students, and low SAT scores. Approximately 70% - 80% of freshmen are first generation college students and nearly the same percentage receive financial aid. A yearly survey of freshmen enrolled in the sixteen campuses of the University of North Carolina reveals that the percentage of FSU freshmen from families with annual incomes of less than $25,000 is one of the highest in the entire university system. The average SAT scores (combined Verbal and Math) of freshmen classes have ranged from 829 to 866 in the past four years.

In view of the number of students with attributes that place them at risk of dropping out of the university, the Freshman Year Initiative is designed as a safety net to identify and provide extra assistance to those students who experience special difficulties in their first year. At the same time, the program avoids imposing unnecessary constraints on students who demonstrate little need for assistance.

While many offices within the university support and contribute to FYI, the primary responsibility for the program lies with the University College, the academic office charged with assisting students in making the transition to the university during the first year. The University College staff members who work directly with FYI are the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (who serves also as Director of University College), the Director of Student Support Services, the Tutor Coordinator for Student Support Services, the Director of the Mathematics Laboratory, the Director of the Reading/Writing Center, the Freshman Counselor, the Transfer Student Counselor, and Freshman Seminar Instructors. The effectiveness of the program is enhanced by the fact that the primary components of the Freshman Year Initiative are located in one building, the Helen T. Chick Building.

The ways in which each of these office are involved in the program can best be summarized by following a typical student through the freshmen year.

1. The University College contacts admitted students prior to their matriculation to inform them of the services offered through the Freshman Year Initiative. Students are invited to contact the University College if they need any assistance in preparing to come to the university.

2. As part of Summer Orientation, students are provided information about the Freshman Year Initiative and encouraged to take advantage of these resources. Students complete profile examinations and are Ablock registered@ into courses based on intended major. (Most students who are block registered will have three or four courses with the other members of their Ablock.@) Students needing academic assistance in one or more areas are assigned to complete work in the Mathematics Laboratory, the Reading/Writing Center, and/or pre-selected for participation in Student Support Services Program. Students who are assigned to receive support have the option to take advantage of the Extension Grade Policy, which allows students who complete all the course requirements and at least 16 hours of academic support for a course, but fails to earn a final grade of C or better, to receive an Extension Grade. Since the Extension Grade does not affect the GPA, it helps the student from falling into probation, but the student must repeat the course the next semester of enrollment.

3. Students are enrolled in Freshman Seminar I and II, a two-semester sequence, which covers a wide range of topics designed to facilitate students= transition to the University: University history, policies, and procedures; study skills; health issues, especially related to sexual matters; meetings with representatives from career services, financial aid, counseling center, and the library; intensive readings from a variety of academic disciplines; activities designed to enhance students ability to work in groups and make presentations. A student mentor, or Peer Academic Leader (PAL) is assigned to each section of Freshman Seminar. The PAL makes him or herself available to students to give assistance at the times when a freshmen would feel more comfortable talking with another student.

4. Through the Early Alert System and midterm grade reports each semester, students are identified who are experiencing academic difficulty. Since the Freshman Seminar Instructor, who meets with students two or three times a week, also serves as the advisor for all students enrolled in his or her sections of Freshman Seminar, the instructor/advisor is in a good position to assist students who have questions or problems and/or who are identified through the Early Alert System.

5. Freshmen with unusually serious problems (emotional, academic, personal) are contacted by the Freshman Counselor who works with students to help resolve the problems and/or refers the student to the Counseling Center or another appropriate resource.

6. At the end of the second semester, students complete an official Declaration of Major form and are transferred to the appropriate department if they meet the requirements for admission to degree programs. Students who do not meet the requirements continue to be served by University College.

7. The University College continues to monitor the members of each freshman class as they progress through their respective degree programs to ensure that they complete core curriculum requirements, that they apply for graduation by the appropriate deadlines, that they are enrolled in courses required by their majors, and that any other potential obstacles to graduation are removed.

The Retention Program
The Theoretical Foundations of the Program

The Freshman Year Initiative is based on several assumptions derived from current research on student success. One such assumption is that student success programs must provide for the variety of needs B academic, personal, and social B of students making the transition to the university. The inextricable relationship between learning and student development, as affirmed by the AStudent Learning Imperative@ from the American College Personnel Association, means that student success programs must be concerned for the totality of factors that affect a student=s progression through the first year. Hence, the Freshman Seminar, a two-semester orientation course required of all first-time freshmen and a key component of FYI, addresses intellectual, personal, and social development. The Freshman Counselor, moreover, is provided to assist students in a variety of areas of need.

A second assumption drawn from research is that student success depends significantly on students= academic and social integration into the institution, an insight central to the works of Vincent Tinto. Successful integration into the university occurs as a student discovers a congruence between his or her individual goals and the mission and resources of the institution and when they feel a sense of belonging in the overall life of the university. An important aim of the Freshman Seminar sequence is to help students clarify their academic and career goals and to introduce them to individuals and offices that can assist them pursuing their goals. A variety of programs -- university-wide events, a music recital, lectures by guest speakers -- are offered each year to promote students= sense of belonging at the university.

A third principle drawn from research that guides the Freshman Year Initiative is the importance of Afront-loading@ resources and assistance in the first year. Data from Noel-Levitz and the 1999 CSRDE Report show that approximately half of the students who drop out of college do so in the first year. In view of the increased vulnerability of students in the first year, the Freshman Year Initiative asserts extensive control over students early in their careers and then reduces that control as students demonstrate their ability to assume responsibility for their own education. An important example of the Afront loading@ is block registration. Using profile examination scores, SAT scores, high school GPA, and intended major (if identified), the University College assigns students to appropriate courses. At the same time, students are enrolled in Student Support Services, the Reading/Writing Center, and Mathematics Laboratory on the basis of their academic profile. The Early Alert System provides another example of Afront loading.@ At the fourth week of the semester, all faculty members teaching freshmen are asked to identify students who are experiencing any form of academic difficulty. Students identified are contacted by the Freshman Seminar Instructor or Freshman Counselor who offers advice and information about resource for resolving these problems. A similar follow-up is made for students who earn D and F grades for midterm.

Program Implementation

The plan for implementing the Freshman Year Initiative involved many offices within the university and was designed to promote widespread support for the program. The plan for the program was developed by the University College staff in conjunction with the appropriate administrators, especially the Chancellor. The plan was presented by the Chancellor to the general faculty in a meeting in the Spring of 1996. Faculty and staff were asked to give their comments, suggestions, and other feedback. A University College Advisory Board, consisting of representatives from throughout the campus, was formed to review the proposed plan and monitor its implementation. Since the Fall of 1996, faculty and staff have been regularly updated on the status of the Freshman Year Initiative.

Methodology used to evaluate retention program

The University College uses two types of information to evaluate the success of the program: 1) data on retention and graduation and 2) results of student surveys. Since the Freshman Year Initiative is designed to improve retention and graduation rates, these data are reviewed each year to determine if the program is contributing to improvements in these areas. Student surveys enable the University College to determine students= satisfaction with different components of the program. Data collected from each of these sources are used in planning for the subsequent year.

A good example of the use of the data to make revisions of the program is the implementation of the two semester freshman seminar class. Prior to 1997, the Freshman Seminar was a one semester course. Our assessment information indicated that while we were doing an effective job of monitoring students in the first semester, we were losing track of them in the second semester. Freshman Seminar I and II were established to resolve this problem. Retention rates have increased since this change, and students indicate greater degrees of satisfaction with the program since the initiation of the two semester sequence.

Indicators used in measuring success of program

One year retention rates have risen from 69.7% for the 1995 cohort (prior to the full implementation of FYI) to 74.2% for the 1998 cohort. Two year retention rates have also increased. These increases have occurred, as the chart below indicates, even though the average SAT scores of each class since 1995 has declined. (Fortunately, the average SAT score of the 1999 freshman class is higher than the previous three classes.) The coincidence of these two trends suggests that the Freshman Year Initiative has made a positive difference in the academic experience of freshmen at Fayetteville State University. The one-year retention rates are higher than the 69.2% average for 1990-97 for less selective institutions as reported in the CSRDE Report (May 1999, p. 49).

One-Year and Two-Year Retention Rates

 

Year

# of students

 

Avg. SAT

 

1-yr retention

 

2-yr retention

1995

380

914

69.7%

51.6%

1996

587

866

71.2%

55.7%

1997

511

829

72.8%

57.5%

1998

519

828

74.2%

 

1999

796

865

 

 

 

Since we will not know the four-year graduation rate for the 1996 cohort B the first group of freshmen to participate in the FYI program -- for at least another month, we can only estimate this number. At this point, 14 students from the cohort have already graduated and another 137 are on the graduation list, that is, they are currently enrolled in all of the courses they need to graduate. If all 137 graduate along with the 14 who have already graduated, 151 or 25.7% will graduate in four years. While some of these students, no doubt, will fail to graduate in May, it is very likely that the 1996 freshman cohort=s four year rate will exceed the highest four-year rate the university has ever recorded, 19.5%, and that the number will be well above the average four-year graduation rate of 12.5% for 1990-94 at less selective institutions as reported in the CSRDE Report (May 1999, p. 51). Student surveys provide another important source of indicators of success for the FYI program. The Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory has been administered to freshmen since 1996. In the most recent detailed results from these surveys (the 1997 freshman cohort) student satisfaction ratings are above the national averages (based on 57,290 students) on all twelve scales covered by the survey, and in eight of the twelve, the difference is statistically significant at the .001 level. In the following areas, all of which are especially relevant to monitoring the impact of the Freshman Year Initiative, the satisfaction ratings by FSU students were higher than the national average and the difference is statistically significant at the .001 level: Concern for the Individual, Student Centeredness, Campus Support Services, and Service Excellence.

Internals surveys have also indicated that the changes made in the Freshman Seminar B expanding it to a two semester sequence -- have increased student satisfaction with the Freshman Year Initiative.

Summary of Student Surveys

Item

1996

1999

The course helped me understand FSU policies and procedures.

3.74

4.04

The course helped me understand the importance of GPA.

4.12

4.33

I received good academic advisement.

3.35

4.23

Course helped me make the transition to FSU.

3.67

3.93

The instructor was helpful

3.99

4.98

 

Summary Evaluation of the Program

The Freshman Year Initiative has made and will continue to make a positive difference in the academic success rates of freshmen at Fayetteville State University, as is reflected in improved retention rates and increased student satisfaction. The factors that have led to this success point to features needed in any retention program. These factors are: 1) support of the program by university administration, faculty and staff; 2) the coordination of support resources in a single unit; and 3) ongoing use of assessment results to revise the program.

Essential to a successful retention program are clear and unequivocal statements of support by administrators at the highest levels. In speeches and memoranda, the Chancellor made it clear to the entire university community that the Freshman Year Initiative was his program, that it is central to the overall mission of the university, and that he expected widespread support for the program. He garnered support for the program by helping faculty and staff to see that it was in everyone=s best interest to do all possible to facilitate increased retention. Additional support has come from other administrators in the form of providing requested budget requests. Academic success programs must be coordinated to ensure appropriate interactions and mutual support among the different components. The location of the components of the Freshman Year Initiative in a centrally located building, coupled with the organization of the components in a single administrative unit help to ensure the effective coordination of the program. The faculty and staff work cooperatively with one another to refer students to one another for support as needed. Essential to the effectiveness of a student success program is ongoing dialogue with faculty and staff at other institutions. Since 1992, Fayetteville State University has been instrumental in bringing together representatives from the campuses of the University of North Carolina system to discuss strategies for improved student success. The program has benefit immeasurably from the exchange of ideas at these seminars. Finally, a successful student success program must have effective assessment procedures in place and the results of these assessments must be used regularly to make changes in the program. The Freshman Year Initiative has never been established with finality, but has been in a constant process of evolution, each change based on assessment data from the previous year. At the end of each academic year, the faculty and staff reviews retention and graduation data and the results of student surveys as a basis for planning for the next year. One such finding was that too many students who succeed in the freshman year drop out of school in their sophomore year or junior years. Consequently, in the 2000 - 2001 academic year, FSU will establish the Advisement Support Center, which is designed to provide for sophomores, juniors, and seniors support and assistance similar to what is provided for freshmen by the Freshman Year Initiative.

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