By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
Improving student persistence on campus is a primary objective for college and universities. What we clearly understand is that some students have more challenges than others with regard to degree completion, therefore, require more services and attention by faculty and staff.
What we’ve learned over the years is that it truly does take a village to help students succeed. In our case, the primary village is the college and university campus. Other external stakeholders, including and especially family members, and extraordinarily important. But for residential students, campus-based professionals are the main conduits for success.
On many campuses, we see a push-pull, us-versus-them dynamic between instructional staff and other campus employees. The dynamic is one of both perception and reality. Staff members tend to perceive faculty members as not caring enough to adjust their practices to better service students. This isn’t always the case, of course. In fact, in my work, I find it is rarely the case. But it certainly exists. There are instructional faculty that believe—full-heartedly—that students are adults and should not be “coddled” or “hand-held” through postsecondary education. My belief is that helping students succeed is neither coddling or hand-holding. It is simply providing appropriate support for college success. Let us deconstruct this thought for a moment.
Most freshman students in higher education recently turned 18 years of age or are about to turn 18. Recent data from the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) study illustrates that 60 percent of first-time students attending a public four-year institution were 18 years of age or under. Ninety-one percent of these students were 19 years of age or younger.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, First Follow-up (BPS:12/14).
Thus, our freshman population is still largely “traditional,” meaning that they are of standard college age. A lot of people have been led to believe that our core constituency is older, but data do not support that perception. There are more adult students in higher education than at any other time in history, but first-time, full-time students are largely between the ages of 18 to 19 years of age. A smaller portion of students are actually 17-years old when they matriculate from high school. The point being simple: these are young, less mature students who have never lived on their own or taken care of themselves in many ways. For residential students, most have never lived away from home, never done laundry, and never cooked for themselves, although many freshman students are on a meal plan initially. These students haven’t experienced many of the things that we take for granted. Activities and responsibilities second nature to us are first experiences for freshman students.
In addition, these young students are untested in the larger world. The college experience is an exceptional opportunity for millions of students each year. But it is a scary venture for many. Even the most confident students—those who have been waiting for the opportunity to go to college—are quietly unsure about the entire experience. While this group tends to get over the anxiety faster than others, the anxiety, in itself, is operational for everyone. Something as simple as understanding where to go on campus can cause anxiety among freshman students. To put this in perspective, think of the first time you went on a large city subway, like New York or Chicago, or if you have ventured through the public transportation systems in non-English cities. Solidly in my sixth decade, I still feel anxious doing this. This is the first day for freshman students.
We must remember that faculty members are largely the first line of defense and support on a college campus. Beyond the elaborate electronic solutions that campuses purchase, instructional staff are, by nature, the “early warning” system for colleges. They remain the only people on campus that see students on a regular basis, perhaps beyond residence hall monitors. This, in itself, makes faculty the primary focus of student retention and success on campus.
As noted, the first several weeks of school can be very distressing for students. Institutions put on quite a show during the first weeks of class in an attempt to acclimate students. Still, a large part of the acclimation resides in the classroom. It is important that faculty members help students clearly understand the academic process and expectations. It is especially important to note that most students have never experienced a learning environment like college. Although two-year institutions are more like high school, the four-year experience is different in almost all respects. There are less classes, more free time, and the expectation that students are in charge of their learning. Faculty members who believe that students come pre-packaged and ready to learn are somewhat naive. Even for commuter students, the college campus is a very different environment than high school. For these reasons, I encourage instructors to assume that students know little or nothing about the process. Instructional staff must be extremely clear about course expectations and preach to students what it takes to be successful. They need to talk about the readings and other assignments that need to be completed outside of class time and how much time they should expect to spend on these activities. Students must understand the importance of keeping up with their course work and to hand in assignments on time. They also need to know what happens to them when they do not do these things.
Many faculty members complain that there are too many activities during the first weeks of class, effectively taking away from the academic focus. I have heard about students coming to class exhausted because they were out at major campus events the night before. This happens. While the university is trying to ensure that students are acclimated and welcomed to the institution, there needs to be a balance between the welcoming events and the academic focus. This provides another opportunity for the instructor to talk directly to students about how to handle these time-management issues.
We also know from research and anecdotal sources that many students do not possess the study, note-taking, time management, and reading skills to keep up with course work. Institutions typically provide many resources to help students come up to speed on these issues. First-Year Experience programs, tutoring centers, and writing and math labs provide important support, to mention a few. But there are two truths here. First is that the students who need the most help are the ones that tend not to seek it out. The second is that these support activities, as helpful as they may be, cannot ameliorate all academic issues in one fell swoop. It takes time. This is a major adjustment for students that can be helped by showing them best practices for completing readings and assignments. For freshman students and gatekeeper courses, it is always good to ramp up reading and homework assignments by breaking them up into smaller chunks and helping students learn about how to work through the material. Over time, the assignments and expectations can become more complex and difficult.
As an early warning facilitator, faculty should also be involved with First-Year Experience and other retention professionals on campus to let others know when students are hemorrhaging in their work. The classroom instructor is the only person that knows if students are coming to class. Instructors should keep a gauge on this, either by taking attendance or noting assignment completions. Some faculty members use regular, in-class assignments to take note who is in attendance and who is not. Other institutions use card scanners and other electronic means to take attendance. Regardless of how this is handled, instructors need to know which students are not attending regularly and let those in the student success offices know.
In the end, instructional faculty should be as involved as they can be, understanding full well that the level of interaction and support varies greatly between students. There is only so much time available, such that faculty members must gauge their involvement. It is helpful when instructional staff understand the various supports on campus and can guide and direct students appropriately. It is important to remember that our purpose in higher education is to help students learn and persist to degree. We know that some won’t make it through no fault of our own. But we should always ensure that we live up to our end of the social compact.