Research reported by the Lumina Foundation has shown that Americans who earn four-year college degrees are more likely to be happy, to be employed, and to exercise and eat well than those who have not attended college. They also are much more likely to say that they are in “very good” or “excellent” health and much less likely to be in prison or jail, to be divorced, or to be poor. Oh, yes, and they also earn, on average, much higher incomes (nearly $60,000 per year, compared to about $35,000 per year, according to median income figures for 2015 reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Before they can enjoy any of those benefits, however, they have to complete that first year of college — and that is, for many, the most difficult part. Nationwide, nearly one-third of students involved in higher education (including both four-year and two-year institutions) do not complete this first year. That’s a lot of lost opportunity.
The challenges are numerous and great. Many students struggle to pay for college, and a sizable percentage work part-time or even full-time jobs while trying to keep up with the reading and writing assignments, exams, and other demands of a college education. These academic demands are often much greater than those that students experienced in high school (as the students themselves have told me), and the adjustment can be overwhelming. A lot of students have to balance these demands with those of raising a family. Then there are the various challenges related to physical and mental health. It’s hard enough to keep up with classwork—much harder still when a student is suffering from anxiety, depression, or various physical ailments, as many students do. One of the greatest challenges, especially for students whose parents did not attend college, is simply feeling that they don’t belong in college.
In short, we who work in higher education in this country are very often teaching students who are trying to meet the formidable academic challenges of college while holding down jobs, raising families, or coping with anxiety, depression, disease, or a nagging feeling that they don’t even belong here.
At Indiana University Kokomo, we know that many of our students are experiencing such challenges— sometimes more than one of them. Our instructors, advisers, and “success coaches” communicate frequently with students, and they have heard countless stories of balancing work and classes, of coping with chronic health problems, of feeling overwhelmed or anxious or out of place.
We believe, however, that success is still possible for many of the students, and we are working to make that success possible, even probable.
Serious challenges require large-scale solutions, and, at IU Kokomo, we are on it. Over the past year, several members of our faculty and staff have been participating in a national project sponsored by the American Association for State Colleges and Universities, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal is to shape the first year of college so that students—especially those facing these challenges—can survive and even thrive.
You might say that we are “Re-Imagining the First Year.”
RFY, as we often call this project, is a multi-dimensional approach to student success, one that takes into account the roles of faculty, staff, institution, and curriculum in student success, as well as the needs of the students.
IU Kokomo has emerged as a leader among the 44 campuses involved in the RFY project. The faculty and staff who are involved on our campus have collaborated on more than a dozen initiatives, and some of us have reported on our work at national conferences.
It’s easy to go astray when trying to help students succeed. As H.L. Mencken said many years ago, “... there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” Rather than merely throwing good intentions and “neat, plausible” solutions at the problems our students face, we have considered the research—and there’s a lot of it out there—and designed interventions that we have good reason to believe will work.
Take, for example, our Student Success Academy, which launches this week. Eight IU Kokomo instructors who applied for the opportunity will meet several times over the next eight months to study proven strategies to promote student success in their classrooms.
Of course, college instructors already know their subjects very well, and all of these instructors have experience using various techniques, such as group work, to teach these subjects effectively. The research on promoting student success, however, is still emerging, and there is still a lot to learn—even for veteran instructors. The Student Success Academy, for example, will apply research on stereotype threat—a phenomenon in which anxiety about fulfilling stereotypes frequently hinders otherwise capable students—to guide instructors in their teaching methods. Readings, videos, and guest speakers in the academy also will cover topics such as teaching students (not courses), designing syllabi that engage today’s students, and crafting effective feedback on students’ work.
Other components of the RFY project involve enhancements to New Student Orientation, Freshman Learning Communities, and communications with students, as well as micro-grants for students needing financial assistance.
New Student Orientation recently underwent an extensive overhaul. Incoming students will continue to learn about campus resources and the like, but the new approach will be much more interactive, as new Faculty Ambassadors (faculty trained to coach incoming students for success in college) will engage students in relevant, thought-provoking exercises and discussion.
Freshman Learning Communities, a longstanding and very successful program at IU Kokomo, has been enhanced, as well. As in earlier iterations, students will have the opportunity to take two or more classes together during the fall of their first year. This approach helps them to make friends, build study groups, and feel that they belong in college. Now, however, many of these common courses come with an extra component, called the “Student Success Seminar,” in which students study and discuss the impostor syndrome, parallel planning (for majors and careers), growth mindset, coping skills, and more.
Even apparently simple enhancements are already showing impact. A few months ago, one of the RFY team members revised a letter that regularly goes out to students who are experiencing academic difficulties. She tweaked the language to emphasize not the problem, but the solution, as well as our hopes for the students’ success. The response was more favorable than anyone could have predicted: nearly 90 percent of the students who received the letter reached out to our “success coaches” for help.
Some parts of the RFY plan address other aspects of students’ lives. In cases where students are slightly short of funds to cover their college expenses, for example, IU Kokomo has begun issuing “micro-grants” so that they can remain enrolled in their classes.
Using new and promising research to enhance our students’ first years of college requires an enormous amount of work. The faculty, staff, and students working on RFY at IU Kokomo have spent countless hours studying the research, discussing ideas, and writing plans for some of these components, as well as many others. Because educating students is a calling for us, however, it’s been a labor of love. As the leader of the RFY team, I have seen very impressive work pursued enthusiastically by some very competent and dedicated people.
The results of all this work, as we already are starting to see, could be impressive, even revolutionary. Every additional student who earns an IU Kokomo degree stands a good chance at a life of health, happiness, and career success. That’s something. Large numbers of new college graduates will make for a sounder economy—and, ultimately, I think—a better world. That’s something else.
A lot depends on student success, so we ought to invest a lot in it. At IU Kokomo, we do.
Mark Canada, Ph.D., is Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University Kokomo, where he leads the Re-Imagining the First Year project. IU Kokomo is a regional campus of Indiana University. Located 50 miles north of Indianapolis, it serves more than 3,000 students in north-central Indiana.