Freshman experience linked to long-term success

Freshmen such as D’Angelo Bellard, undecided, left, and Vincent Jackson, education junior, are shown to create the foundation of the rest of their college career in those pivotal first months in a new study.  |  Izmail Glosson/The Daily Cougar

A new study says that freshmen such as D’Angelo Bellard, undecided, left, and Vincent Jackson, education junior, create the foundation of the rest of their college career in the pivotal first months. | Izmail Glosson/The Daily Cougar

Nationwide university freshman retention rates show that as many as one in three first-year students don’t make it back for their sophomore year.

While there are many factors to consider when determining retention among the student freshman body, the rates provide a direct link to the successful and not-so-successful student longevity programs across the spectrum.

When contrasting the percentages of returning first-year students, UH fell low on the list of highly ranked Texas universities with a retention rate of 81 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report. Meanwhile, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin tied at 92 percent, and Rice University reached 96 percent.

The first factor observed when considering differences among the rankings is first-year experience intervention.

“Despite being rather withdrawn and coming in as a freshman in the fall of 2011, the old UC still offered an orientation fair welcoming new students, where I was approached by other students and then later welcomed by first-year professors. It seemed like a reassuring enough welcoming,” said psychology junior Corey Helfand.

Orientation, which incoming students must attend or face a hold on registration, seems to serve more than just an informative purpose. According to Tara Boyle, director of prospective and new student programs, 96.7 percent of freshmen who attend orientation continue on to enroll in courses and remained enrolled in courses through the 20th class day.

“Orientation promotes getting involved, which truly changed my entire motives after my first year on campus. It helped me feel more like I belonged to something,” said orientation leader and architecture junior Candela Beistegui.

Along with orientation comes one of the several first-year prospective student programs optional for newly admitted students — Destination UH, through which students are able to explore careers and make a connection with their chosen department.

“Every student that comes through the program is accounted for, whether it is for a missed orientation or through the enrollment process,” Boyle said.

However successful these introductory programs and services seem to be, UH continues to see a significant percentage of freshman dropouts. U.S. News & World Report claimed that successful integration of new students into college has direct links to academic success.

UH was recently accepted by the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education to take on a project to push for a first-year experience at UH that establishes a stronger foundation for incoming students.

“We need to think about ‘what are the variables that impact student success,’ and if we don’t ever change the variables, we are never really going to change the outcome,” said Daniel Maxwell, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and co-director of the Foundations of Excellence.

With this issue brought to the surface, the Foundations of Excellence can take data from an extensive field of participants and pull evidence that leads to determining whether the problem is systematic — an issue within the process of recruitment or acceptance — or whether the available programs and services are achieving their intended purposes.

Throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, the Foundations of Excellence has taken on the mission to uncover the truths of freshman retention rates and undergraduate educational achievement at UH and other college campuses nationwide.

Maxwell said he believes that with this data, the University is one step closer to digging up real solutions, which now lie hidden behind “anecdotal stories of freshman dropouts.”

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘what are the things that we can control,’ and if we tweaked them, changed them, incorporated them into a different delivery, we can then support students and their success at a higher rate,” he said.

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  • A few observations/questions –

    1) Were those freshman who dropped out granted admission to UH outside the standardized requirements (class rank, SAT/ACT score)?

    2) How many of the dropouts were admitted because they were in the top 10-15% of their class but did not score well on the SAT/ACT? In other words, maybe their respective high schools weren’t preparing them for college (HISD, etc).

    3) Increasing the difficulty of UH’s admission standards for incoming freshman and transfer students who flunk out of UT, A&M, Baylor, Tech, etc. will help retain better students who want to be at UH and are capable of sticking it out and graduating. Raise the bar on direct admissions for freshman and require 30 credit hours earned and a GPA of 3.0 for transfers. Stop making UH a fallback.

    4) UH should look to spend more funds on high achievers, with a first time small scholarship for incoming freshmen of $1,000.00 for a strong high school GPA and strong SAT/ACT test score – continued annually for those students if they maintain a semester GPA greater than 3.0.

    This would be a good roll out program when recruiting KIPP graduates, other charter school graduates and at high school college fairs.

    5) UH’s reputation improves when more of its students graduate in a timely manner and get jobs. It’s the hottest job market since the early 1980’s in the Greater Houston Area. Take advantage of that by getting graduation ready students through the door.

    6) Students who do not qualify for direct admission to UH should be given a clear path on how they can obtain admission to UH down the road. Offer admission to UHD, UHV, UHCL or direct them to community colleges to work on the fundamentals and transfer after achieving a 3.0 GPA or higher after 30 credit hours has been earned.

    7) Does Mr. Bellard have better fitting pants?

    • Great ideas with #s 1-5. Not going to touch #7. Not sold on #6. I know that at least one other campus in the UH system is stressing retention without sacrificing true academic success. I am not so sure that community colleges are doing the same. They seem to emphasize retention even if it has to come through grade inflation. Transfers may or may not be ready for 4-year university life, but too many times, they are not.

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