5 Strategies for First-Year Retention

Decorative: The word "Retention" written on a chalkboard


"A Third of Your Freshman Disappear: How Can You Keep Them?" (post) outlines "five of the most popular programs and initiatives to improve first-year retention -- some well-established and some relatively new." 

  • These efforts especially help retain "low-income, first-generation, and minority students."
  • Ideally, these efforts should be "campuswide, comprehensive, collaborative, and coordinated."
  • "We can’t wipe our hands and say, 'We’ve done orientation, our job is done.'"

A. Common Reasons First-Year Students Drop Out

  • "[T]hey aren’t prepared for college-level work."
  • "[T]hey’re working long hours to cover tuition."
  • "[T]hey face a family crisis."
  • "[T]hey don’t feel that they fit in."

B. Suggested Programs and Initiatives

1. First-Year Seminar and Freshman Orientation

"[C]reate programs that are specific to the students who are coming to th[e] campus," e.g. the following:

  • "'[E]xtended orientation' seminars, in which students are taught study skills and how to navigate the campus"
  • "'Academic seminars,' which are centered on a subject or theme"
  • Covering the basics -- "course registration, placement exams, meetings with academic advisers —" but ... add[ing] a healthy dose of community-building, along with discussions of mental health, diversity, and social justice"
  • Holding sessions in the languages of the students
  • Holding "separate orientations for subgroups of students, such as older adults, veterans, international and multicultural students, and honors-program participants"

2. Building a Sense of Belonging

a. Reach out: "[F]irst-generation and minority students are less likely to feel a connection to their colleges, and more likely to struggle with self-doubt and impostor syndrome — feeling like an intellectual fraud."

  • Have "peer mentors and academic advisors reach out to students" multiple times "from when they pay their admissions deposit to when they move in."
  • Invite "shy students ... to small-group gatherings based on their hobbies and interests."

b. "[C]reat[e] courses and programs aimed at building students’ confidence and coping skills," e.g. the following: 

  • "[A] student-success seminar ... discuss[ing] impostor syndrome and growth mind-set"
  • "[A] student-success academy, where they stud[y] stereotype threat (the risk of confirming a negative group stereotype) and other psychological barriers to learning."
  • "[P]re-orientation session ... messages from current students describing how they overcame their own feelings that they didn't belong or weren't smart enough"
  • "[I]ntensive leadership-training program that provides scholarships and on-campus internships, so that participants, many of them commuter students, spend more time on campus"

3. Redesigning Gateway Courses

  • "Among the biggest stumbling blocks for many freshmen are gateway courses — those high-enrollment, lecture-heavy classes that are popularly known as 'weed-out courses.'"

a. Some Easy Fixes

  • Design course content so "students who struggl[e] with the foundational material ...get support sooner."
  • "[M]ov[e] to an open-source textbook, so that all students would have the material on the first day of class."

b. "Deeper Reforms"

  • "[T]rading the time-honored lecture for a student-centered, active-learning approach in some classrooms" -- "secure faculty buy-in"!

4. "Supplemental Instruction"

a. This "puts peer coaches in challenging courses ... undergraduate and graduate students who previously excelled in the course."

  • They "hold regularly scheduled study sessions in which students review the material, discuss readings, and learn study skills."
  • "The technique focuses on 'high-risk courses,' including many offered during the first year."

b. Another option: "course assistants" -- "students who earned at least a B-plus in the course [who] sit in on classes and model good habits, such as note-taking and asking respectful questions."

  • "[T]hey facilitate small-group discussions, demonstrate problem-solving strategies, and observe students to identify individuals who could benefit from additional support."

5. "Early Alerts and Intrusive Advising"

  • "Early-alert systems ... use data about academic performance to flag students who need extra help."

a. "Professors [might consider] sharing students’ midterm grades with academic advisers."

  • "[I]nput from multiple faculty ... let[s] colleges predict which students are likeliest to struggle ... and identify those who need attention and resources early in the semester, before it’s too late."
  • "[Going] from reactive to proactive ... is so much more beneficial for students."

b. "[A]cademic advisers [may] become more 'intrusive,' asking students not just about their coursework but also about their social and emotional well-being":

  • "How are things going in the residence hall?"
  • "Are you able to balance work and studying?"
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