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Survey: Most 2-Year Colleges Lack Financial Resources to Support Student Success Programming

While plenty of programs for first-year students — summer bridge, first-year orientation, first-year student success courses, advising and counseling, learning communities — have found success in four-year colleges and universities, a new study examined the issues two-year schools face in getting students engaged in the campus, staying in school and accumulating credits.

The survey, produced by nonprofits Ithaka S+R and Two Year First Year (TYFY), found that first-year programming is "very common" among the 174 public institutions (both two-year and four-year) that participated (though the report noted the survey data could be inflated due to "self-selection"). Every one of the institutions surveyed offered at least one of 11 first-year activities or services (the average was six):

  • Orientation (available at 95 percent of respondent institutions);
  • College success courses (87 percent);
  • Career services (72 percent);
  • Proactive student outreach and interventions based on early alerts (71 percent);
  • Social events and networking (70 percent);
  • Guided pathways or customized degree plans (56 percent);
  • First-year advising (55 percent)
  • Cohort classes or learning communities (33 percent);
  • Summer bridge program (29 percent);
  • First-year mentoring (22 percent); and
  • First-year college readiness survey (14 percent).
First-year programs available at institutions in the survey

First-year programs available at institutions in the survey. Source: "The First-Year Experience in Two-Year Public Postsecondary Programs," from Ithaka S+R

Schools with formal "first-year experience" (FYE) programs (making up 40 percent of respondents) tended to deliver more first-year activities (1.5 more, on average), noted author Rayane Alamuddin, an associate director for research and evaluation at Ithaka. They also differed from the others by the type of activities they offered, with an emphasis on those "backed by experimental evidence" of boosting student outcomes. "They are significantly more likely to offer first-year mentor programs, summer bridge programs, first-year advising, social events or networking, customized degree plans or guided pathways, and cohort classes or learning communities," the report stated. They're also more likely to require first-years to interact with career services and to offer first-year seminars focusing on professional or career-based content.

The report revealed that two-year schools faced a number of challenges in their first-year programming. The most common problem: a lack of financial resources, mentioned by 74 percent of respondents. Resistance to change among faculty and staff surfaced in 38 percent of institutions. Those respondents with FYE programs were more likely to mention hurdles related to infrastructure challenges and institutional politics. "This suggests," wrote Alamuddin, "that developing and running FYE programs may highlight challenges surrounding particular institutional structures and resources, or may potentially strain existing structures and resources at institutions that serve two-year students."

What the researcher found particularly troubling was how few two-year institutions "tailor their first-year programming to the two-year context." For example, the activities supported with experimental evidence "are uncommon." And transfer- and career-related elements don't get the kind of attention they warrant.

Based on interviews with some of the respondents as well as survey findings, the report suggested that colleges consider using dedicated programs or departments to coordinate first-year practices and that they conduct more internal research and data analysis "to inform their programming decisions."

TYFY is a nonprofit created by a group of two-year college professionals to share best practices among programs supporting first-year students; Ithaka is a nonprofit that consults to higher education. Their report was based on a 2017 survey of 525 two- and four-year institutions and a 2012 national survey of student success practices at 286 nonprofit two-year institutions. The full report is openly available on the Ithaka website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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