Making it Through the First Year

Portals can help forge bonds with freshman students, easing the transition to college life.

AS MUCH AS IT IS EAGERLY ANTICIPATED, freshman year is often a time of confusion, disorientation, and even alienation for many students.

According to ACT (maker of the ACT college entrance exam), one in four college freshmen will drop out before completing sophomore year. The reasons for this high level of withdrawal vary, but a report by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute suggests that new students often feel overwhelmed and unprepared for the academic and social challenges of college life (see "It's Not Easy Being Green").

Higher education institutions are constantly looking for new ways to help first-year students smooth the transition between high school and college. Many begin before the students even step foot on campus, investing in sophisticated web portals for prospective and admitted students that provide a gateway to relationship building with faculty, staff, and other incoming freshmen. Most colleges and universities also commit administrative resources to helping new students get acclimated to campus, creating departments with titles such as the Office of Retention and First-Year Programs.

Yet not many universities devote the same level of IT resources to students once they arrive, as they do to encourage them to come. And few provide their first-year program administrators with technological tools that will help them proactively support students. At most, freshmen are directed into the same portal all students use, or have access to a static web page featuring a "frequently asked questions" list and links to the offices and groups a freshman might find useful.

Making it Through the First Year

LEHIGH UNIVERSITY's first-year-experience portal pushes relevant information to new students, helping them learn about the school, manage their time, and make decisions before they arrive on campus.

Higher ed IT experts can point to a handful of universities, however, that have developed first-year student portals in an effort to reach out to this vulnerable population. The innovative administrators behind these programs have sought to move beyond passive websites to create personalized and event-driven pages with information pushed to students based upon their needs and interests.

While most of these pioneers cannot pinpoint the actual impact of the portals on retention rates (because the programs are either too new or they are just one part of a broader first-year support effort), they believe the portals are forging deeper bonds with their first-year students by proactively targeting their social and academic needs. Here are three case studies.

Minnesota: Making It Personal

For several years, officials at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities have been sending targeted e-mails to specific student groups on campus based upon their interests. In 2004, as a logical extension of those efforts, they launched a web portal, called myU, that retrieves personalized information for each student and acts accordingly.

When freshmen log in, for example, the system recognizes them as first-year students and "delivers specific information in a look and feel targeted at them," says Bill O'Connor, assistant director for communications and public relations for orientation and first-year programs.

"Overall, the tone of our content for freshmen is created to help those students make connections and feel more welcome at the university," he explains. "All of our programming focuses on the developmental needs of students, and with new freshmen we know that this can be a very vulnerable time for them."

Minnesota recognizes that six weeks into the first semester can be a particularly crucial time for new students, for instance, so the school features support, counseling, and connection opportunities on the freshman home page during this period.

"If what you are creating is not relevant, the students will leave. We have already seen some flight."
—Bruce Taggart, vice provost for library and technology services, Lehigh University

"We will even post information about being homesick or struggling with the responsibilities of being away from home for the first time," says O'Connor.

In addition, freshmen on campus get features to help them acclimate. For example, there is a program through the portal called "Kick It!" which is a sort of treasure hunt to motivate students to get out and get involved in campus activities.

In contrast, O'Connor points out that new transfer students prefer more direct and brief information, and are more likely to be commuter students. "For this population we try to encourage involvement and connections, but mostly we make sure they are aware of any tools they will need to be successful at the U of M."

Students begin using the portal once they are accepted. "Incoming students can start chatting with other students in a discussion board. It's their first chance to make connections with other students," explains O'Connor.

There was discussion among administrators about adding social networking tools, but they ultimately decided not to compete with Facebook and MySpace. "Students get a lot of benefit from those sites," O'Connor says. "We decided to try to fill the gap with information specific to the campus they are not getting [on external sites]."

It is difficult to measure the portal's impact, because it is one of several new first-year initiatives, including a new welcome week for all incoming freshmen. But each year Minnesota adds new features, and each year its internal metrics show that more students are using it. One thing administrators would like in the next iteration is the ability to drill down deeper into the data to better understand how students use the portal. "I can see that a biological science major is on the site right now," O'Connor says, "but I can't see what he is doing or which parts of the site he is focusing on."

Lehigh: Making It Relevant

In 2001 when Bruce Taggart explained what a portal was to other Lehigh University (PA) officials, he remembers they looked at him confusedly, "like the RCA dog, with their heads turned to the side." The university website does that already, they told him.

"No," replied Taggart, vice provost for library and technology services, "the website is passive and students have to log in to several systems to find information." He explained to them that a portal would be personalized and integrated, would push relevant information to students, and would be continually updated.

A private university with approximately 5,000 students, Lehigh decided to build portals for several different constituencies on campus. Although its first-to-second year retention rate is quite high at 94 percent, the university started in 2003 by launching a first-year-experience portal, with the goal of expanding to other populations from there.

Lehigh officials decided to start their portal development work with incoming freshmen because those new students "have a lot to learn about campus and many decisions to make in a short period of time," Taggart says.

Using portal technology from its student information services provider (SunGard), the school is able to push relevant personal information to new students. For instance, time management is often a problem for first-year students, so at Lehigh, freshman students' personalized calendars use color coding to let them know they should do things in red right away; items flagged in yellow indicate deadlines that are coming up soon.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Freshman enrollment: 5,280
Student information system: Oracle PeopleSoft
Freshman portal technology: myU portal created with open source system Metadot

The Student Affairs Office uses the portal to connect to freshmen in several ways. It uses quizzes and surveys delivered through the portal to get a sense of a student's strengths, weaknesses, and concerns. Informational literacy tests conducted via the portal give the office an overall idea of how well the new students can cite sources and summarize research. An alcohol quiz helps Student Affairs assess students' overall understanding about drinking issues on campus. The results can help staff determine the level of outreach necessary.

The office also uses the portal to probe students about the levels of service they receive from Student Affairs and the Registrar's Office. Information and e-mail links for all the campus counseling services involving sex, drugs, alcohol, and mental health are prominently displayed in the portal.

"One of Student Affairs' biggest concerns is identifying students at risk early," Taggart says.

The Road to Xavier

AT SOME UNIVERSITIES, officials have noticed that the web portals created for admitted students are having an impact on freshman behavior. Xavier University (OH) developed an elaborate portal, called The Road to Xavier, that acts as a gateway to relationship building for prospective and admitted students.

The portal, developed in house, connects prospective students to their admissions counselor, their financial aid counselor, and the chair of their academic department, as well as some current students. The current students submit photos with special Flickr feeds and they Twitter about daily life so that incoming students can get a sense of what day-to-day life on campus is like.

All this online contact before students arrive is proving beneficial, administrators say. "The orientation team says there has been a huge change," reports Douglas Ruschman, director for web services. "They have a strong sense that the students know each other already when they first arrive." Many students also already know and may have contacted the chair of their academic department or the retention office. "Those connections never used to be made before they arrived on campus," he adds.

Ruschman says the university sees its next challenge as extending the value students find in The Road to Xavier to the portal students use once they arrive on campus. Currently they can find a freshman-only area that contains notices about events specific to freshmen such as special days to join organizations or clubs. Freshmen can also connect to campus ambassadors who serve as mentors and who may IM or chat with them.

While those features are fine, Ruschman says, "My goal is to take that further. We have room to grow. If a freshman doesn't know who her adviser is, we should push that to her," he suggests. "If there is a specific librarian for a student's subject area, we can push that information to him as well. The challenge is to lend the site the same personalization we are showing during recruitment and admission."

After it created the first-year-experience portal, Lehigh next extended the technology to admitted students. "That portal allows them to ask questions of current students, and we were able to deliver many of the orientation features online through it, including a pre-calculus test," Taggart says. Because some of the orientation process can now take place online, new students come to campus only once in the summer before their first year instead of twice, as they used to (see "Road to Xavier," for related story).

Virtually all freshman students use the portal because that is how they get to their grades, finances, and the Blackboard course management system. (Previously, students had separate logins for transcripts and grades, e-mail, and financial systems. Now everything related to academics, including calendars, online library offerings, and Blackboard, is unified under a single sign-on, with customized tools to make life easier.)

But Taggart has noted that student use of technology has changed quite a bit since 2003. For instance, the school started building social network features, but abandoned them because students now go to Facebook for all their social networking. Students also forward their Lehigh e-mail to their Google Gmail accounts because it allows them to store more data. "If what you are creating is not relevant, the students will leave," Taggart says bluntly. "We have already seen some flight."

He adds, however, "The good news is that we're flexible enough that our portal manager can work with SunGard and suggest new features to test that are relevant and useful."

Alabama: Making It Connect

Lowell Davis, assistant director of new student programs at The University of Alabama, says that in 2004 UA was seeking to help first-year students "make connections" with other students. But he and his colleagues were also looking for a way for university officials to proactively connect with new students, so that they could better monitor that critical first year.

Created and maintained by software vendor EducationDynamics, the Inside-UA portal aims to provide an engaging online social environment for first-year students by enabling them to create and share profiles, upload photos, use discussion boards, and blog about events on campus.

Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA

Freshman enrollment: 1,166
Student information system: SunGard Banner
Freshman portal technology: MyLehigh, powered by SunGard's SCT Luminis Platform

"We had a goal to make it as personal as possible, so that it would look familiar to them," Davis explains. "EducationDynamics had somewhat of a template for this, and they worked to provide a localized look and feel and populate it with 'Bama' content."

The most popular feature is called "AskBama," which allows students to ask administrators about everything from financial aid and how to change roommates, to how to sell their football tickets.

The administrative side of the portal features reporting tools that allow the program administrator to assess engagement of individual students as well as the whole first-year population.

"We use pop-up questions to make sure students are connecting," Davis explains. "We might ask if they know who their academic adviser is, for instance. If they don't, then we reach out to them. We might send an e-mail or ask if they would like to do a face-to-face meeting. This just lets them know that somebody cares about them."

It's Not Easy Being Green

ACCORDING TO 2005 RESEARCH on freshmen conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, first-year college students:

Frequently felt…

  • Overwhelmed by all they had to do 39.4%
  • Depressed 13.1%

Frequently or occasionally felt…

  • Lonely or homesick 48.8%
  • Worried about meeting new people 41.9%
  • Isolated from campus life 35.2%

Source: Hurtado, S., Sax, L. J., Saenz, V., Harper, C. E., Oseguera, L., Curley, J., Lopez, L.,Wolf, D., Arellano, L. (2007). Findings From the 2005 Administration of Your First College Year. For the full report go to www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri and click on "Publications: Briefs, Reports & Papers."

The portal offers a series of articles about drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues, and even role-playing games around issues like binge drinking. There is a link to the counseling center, so help is just one button push away for students who might be reticent about face-to-face meetings on what they may consider embarrassing topics.

The reporting tools allow UA to track usage, and it is quite high in the first semester. For freshman introductory courses, instructors often post surveys and questionnaires for students within InsideUA. By the spring semester, however, usage drops off a bit as freshmen become more familiar with the campus and start using Facebook more.

But Davis reports seeing a spike in April, as students look for roommates for the following year and for internships or summer jobs.

Because of its social networking features and because it is populated with information on campus events, Davis reports that some students have told him they would like to continue using InsideUA after their freshman year. Davis himself would like students to be able to keep using InsideUA's social networking tools because they allow administrators to keep tabs on how well students are doing at staying connected.

University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Freshman enrollment: 4,538
Student information system: SunGard Banner
Freshman portal technology: InsideUA, hosted by vendor EducationDynamics

"A lot of schools have offices focused on retention and the first-year experience," Davis says, "but traditionally you don't see as much attention paid to sophomores and juniors."

Until then, UA will continue to use its portal technology to actively reach out to first-year students. Because, as Lowell succinctly puts it, "Freshman year is a crucial time."

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