Re-Imagining March Madness

By Lorenzo L. Esters

Vice President, Philanthropy, Strada Education Network

Like millions of others this time of the year, I’ve been watching the action unfold during the NCAA Tournament. As always, I’ve been intrigued by the passion that surrounds this annual event — passion that has led us to often refer to it as March Madness.

What if we were as passionate about the success of students in their first year of college as we are about which schools will win in the NCAA Tournament? The participants in the Re-Imagining the First Year of College (RFY) project are that passionate, and the results of their work so far show it.

Strada Education NetworkSM is partnering with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities on Re-Imagining the First Year of College. Since January 2016 AASCU has led 44 member institutions in working together to improve the quality of learning and student experience in the first year of college.

Innovations in student success — reworking student advising, redesigning communications with students, and rebooting gateway courses — are underway in the RFY project. After only one year, results show that more students are experiencing academic success and moving faster toward degree completion.

“We have learned from this project that it takes multiple innovations, all undertaken together, to see improvements in student performance,” says George Mehaffy, AASCU’s vice president for academic leadership and change.

AASCU institutions enroll high numbers of low-income, first-generation or students of color, often the most vulnerable students. Too often, these students may ask themselves, “Do I belong in college?”

The RFY institutions are committed to focusing on students’ mindset to encourage them to believe that they are college-worthy. That work led RFY institutions to establish a new metric to measure student success across the first year.

‘Do I belong?’

Institutions traditionally look at passing rates as silos, with each course tracked as an independent outcome. But students often experience the first year holistically, instead asking, “Did I pass all my courses?”

Even one failure amplifies the question, “Do I belong in college?”

In the baseline year, prior to RFY innovations, only 53 percent of first-year students passed all the courses they attempted. That means nearly half — 47% — of first-year students failed at least one course during that year.

The finding surprised AASCU and the participating institutions, and it has major implications for mindset, time to degree, and the cost of a college education. Some failure in the first year is a more common student experience than institutions had realized.

According to Randy Swing, a consultant working with AASCU, this new metric is not part of the usual data collection on student success. Including this measurement adds an important dimension by looking at the first year through the lens of students.

Institutional policies and practices can improve the percentage of students who pass all their courses — without lowering academic quality. In fact, in just one year, two out of three RFY institutions improved the success of their students in passing all courses — and half made significant gains, with the number of first-year students successfully completing all courses increasing by 2 percentage points or more.

This early success is promising and aligns well with RFY’s two main goals:

  1. Help more students, particularly low-income and first-generation students and students of color, transition to their second year in college, achieve greater learning outcomes, increase their confidence as capable learners, and prepare them for success in the rest of college and in the workplace.
  2. Create a repository of promising practices that are tested for effectiveness, resulting in a refined list of promising practices and tips for implementation.

“These campuses are not just helping students succeed,” AASCU’s Dr. Mehaffy said. “They are transforming lives.”

Measuring success

Now comes the work of determining which practices are best in helping first-year students complete all classes they attempt that year and succeeding in other measures of student success.

As they work to address key indicators, the RFY institutions are implementing measures that focus on four specific areas:

Institutional intentionality — Looking at administrative structures, budgeting, and building a culture of obligation

Curriculum — Infusing personalization software, redesigning courses and providing well-defined pathways

Faculty and staff — Creating faculty and staff incentives for working with first-year students, and creating opportunities for collaboration between academic and student affairs

Students — Emphasizing the noncognitive factors of belonging, mindset, advising systems and career focus for students

I am excited about the success of the RFY institutions to date and look forward to the practices that they will identify as most promising in supporting first-year student success.

Perhaps it is from these promising practices that we can, in fact, create a new kind of March Madness — for first-year student success.