NPR logo Fixing A Broken Freshman Year: What An Overhaul Might Look Like

Higher Ed

Fixing A Broken Freshman Year: What An Overhaul Might Look Like

Dropouts
LA Johnson/NPR

When Taevin Lewis first arrived at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis — a long plane ride from her native Tennessee — she was a little lost.

"I didn't know where to go," remembers the sophomore biology major. "I didn't know where a lot of the offices were."

And it wasn't just the campus map. She didn't know some of the basics of college life: How to sign up for classes, how to sign up for a campus job, how to maintain a checkbook.

"Honestly, if I did not have ... determination to do things on my own," she says, "I probably would have fallen by the wayside like a lot of students did."

Her original freshman class? "It has dwindled to the point where it's very hard to pinpoint who is a sophomore now, just because a lot of the known faces are no longer here."

In fact, only 43 percent of Harris-Stowe freshmen make it to sophomore year. And Harris-Stowe is not the only school with this problem. In 2015, only a little more than half of students who enrolled in college in 2009 made it to graduation, with the largest percentage dropping out after their freshman year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

That's why 44 state colleges and universities — including Harris-Stowe — have come together in an attempt to reshape freshman-year programs.

The three-year project is called "Re-Imagining the First Year of College," and it's organized by AASCU — the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The schools plan to combine student advising with bigger, institution-wide changes to the curriculum, the administration and the faculty, all in the hopes of keeping students in school through graduation.

So what will this actually look like?

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Each school will try out changes that are suited to its particular needs. Harris-Stowe plans to give students a lot more guidance when freshmen arrive on campus in the fall.

"Some students don't find a connection between being in college, their career path and graduation," says Dwyane Smith, the university's vice provost.

With better advising, he believes, students' classes will better fit with their major, and their major will be tailored to the careers they want.

That didn't happen last year, when Cimani Lumzy, now a sophomore, started at Harris-Stowe. She came to college knowing exactly what she wanted to do: become a hematology nurse.

But Lumzy was placed into a health care management major, instead of biology, where she says she belonged.

"I was like, 'Why am I taking business classes? I need to be in chemistry, forensic science, stuff like that,' " she remembers. Eventually, she switched into the right track, but not before she'd taken three courses outside of her major, pushing back her graduation.

Harris-Stowe says it's now much more attentive to problems like that, and says future freshmen will get better help.

The practice of having advisers for students has been around for decades. It started in the 1980s, when colleges started to worry about their graduation rates. And alone, or on a small scale, advising doesn't make a big enough difference.

So the 44 participating schools will focus on the whole campus. They're reworking curricula, getting faculty to work closely with freshmen and pledging to make data-informed decisions.

"If you try to do several things at once, you're going to send a message to the campus that you are involved in broad-scale, pervasive change," says George Mehaffy, who's organizing the project for AASCU.

"We're smarter collectively than we are individually," Mehaffy adds. "Many times, we've tried to solve problems as individual institutions, rather than working together collaboratively. ... This is the century of crowd-sourcing, rather than individual autonomy."

California State University, Long Beach has been working to improve its graduation numbers for nearly a decade. Officials there say this project is an opportunity to look back at changes they've already made, and to start thinking about improving retention rates for sophomores and juniors.

But revamping a curriculum? "That takes a long time to develop your infrastructure to achieve," says David Dowell, the provost at Long Beach.

Unfortunately, the other colleges don't have much time. They begin implementing changes this fall, which means they have only a few months to plan, and then three short years to make tweaks and gather data.

Dowell says schools will need those three years and more: "The 10 years we've taken is hardly enough."

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