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Institutions With First Year Excellence: Five Criteria

Tomorrow's Academy

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It is also important that campuses have a clear rationale for the first year-what the first year is intended to do that goes beyond a low-level functional purpose (for example, making money for the institution, weeding out undesirable students) to a first-year philosophy that serves as a platform for the achievement of institutional mission.


The posting below looks at five criteria for excellence in first year undergraduate education. It is from Chapter One: On Being Named an Institution of Excellence in the First College Year - The Process and the Places, in Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College by Betsy O. Barefoot, John N. Gardner, Marc Cutright, Libby V. Morris, Charles C. Schroeder, Stephen W. Schwartz, Michael J. Siegel, and Randy L. Swing. Copyright © 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis


Tomorrow's Academy

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"Why can't we get the faculty more involved in first-year initiatives?" This common question has many possible answers, but it is clear that first-year excellence cannot be achieved, much less sustained, without the involvement of an institution's faculty. Faculty ownership, however, is not enough. Achievement of first-year excellence requires meaningful partnerships among various campus constituent groups-faculty, administrators, student affairs professionals, and students. The first year is also a focal point around which such partnerships can be created and sustained.

The institutional stories as provided in this book breathe life into these five criteria and provide multiple examples of the way institutions of varying sizes, types, and missions have achieved excellence according to this model.

Selection Criteria

An obvious prerequisite to implementing a recognition process of this type is the determination of criteria by which an institution's approach to the first year might be evaluated. We began this project by drawing on available scholarly literature, in addition to the collective experiences of Policy Center staff, to determine a set of common criteria by which diverse approaches to the first year could be evaluated in a two-year and four-year, public and private, large and small campuses. Five criteria resulted from our lengthy deliberations and provided the yardstick by which an eighteen-member panel-Policy Center staff and thirteen external reviewers-measured the efforts of the 130 nominees:

CRITERION 1: Evidence of an international, comprehensive approach to improving the first year that is appropriate to an institution's type and mission. Institutions of Excellence are characterized by an approach to the first year that spans the curriculum and co-curriculum. This approach is central and systemic rather than appended or patched on to the core institutional mission.

"Down with serendipity and up with intentionality!" This statement, often made in public settings by John Gardner, is at the heart of this first criterion. Throughout the history of higher education, Gardner would argue, we have relied too much on serendipity-those special chance meetings of students and faculty, or students and other students, that shape the educational experience. Through the years, we have found that serendipity is not sufficient; rather, being intentional about the way we engineer meaningful student-faculty and student-student interactions is a key to success. It is also important that campuses have a clear rationale for the first year-what the first year is intended to do that goes beyond a low-level functional purpose (for example, making money for the institution, weeding out undesirable students) to a first-year philosophy that serves as a platform for the achievement of institutional mission.

CRITERION 2: Evidence of assessment of the various initiatives that constitute this approach. Institutions of Excellence are committed to an assessment process that results in data-driven continuous improvement in the first year. They should be able to report what was studied, how assessment was conducted, and how results were used.

A bird's-eye view of first-year assessment discovers some disturbing trends-first, an overwhelmingly focus on measuring retention and the absence of evaluation of higher-level cognitive and affective outcomes. Of course, retention is important; but we believe most educators would agree that the purpose of the first year is more than simply keeping students at the institution where they began their undergraduate journey. A 2002 national survey of the nation's chief academic officers conducted by the Policy Center discovered a second troubling trend: 31 percent of two- and four-year institutions conduct no assessment of the first year using national or regional comparative data, and another 31 percent collect data but make no meaningful use of these data ( Such data tend to languish unused-a waste of institutional energy and resources. An obvious key to achieving excellence is not only conducting assessment, but also usi!

ng assessment findings for institutional improvement.

CRITERION 3: Broad impact on significant numbers of first-year students, including, but not limited to, special student subpopulations. First-year initiatives are characterized by high expectations and essential support for all students at all levels of academic ability.

What is a reasonable level of student participation in first-year initiatives? 100 percent? Less than 100 percent? This question has no one-size-fits-all answer. Rather, we argue that institutions should determine how they can realize maximum impact through a variety of first-year efforts whether desired impact can be achieved if all students are not required to participate. We also maintain that a college or university's design of the first year should take into account both the special needs of students who may be underprepared or at the honors level, and the needs of students in between-those who on many campuses are considered just too average to require special attention. Out collective experience argues that all students are potentially at risk in one way or another for failing to realize maximum benefit from the first college year.

CRITERION 4: Strong administrative support for first-year initiatives evidence of institutionalization, and durability over time. Institutions of Excellence have a demonstrable track record of support for first-year initiatives. First-year programs and policies enjoy high status and receive an equitable share of fiscal and personnel resources.

Among multiple competing institutional priorities, the achievement of high status is no small feat. And for many campuses, where attention to the first year is a peripheral responsibility managed by entry-level employees, a high-status first year is only a dream. But for others, the first year is supported in high places, has been institutionalized, and has become the centerpiece of campus marketing-the way the institution proudly presents itself to its various publics, including, but not limited to, incoming students. High status also implies a reasonable and equitable level of financial support for organizational structures that support the design of the first year.

CRITERION 5: Involvement of a wide range of faculty, student affairs professionals, academic administrators, and other constituent groups. Institutions of Excellence involve all campus constituent groups in the design, implementation, and maintenance of first-year initiatives. These institutions are characterized by partnerships in support of the first year across divisional lines.