From the issue dated November 17, 2000

With the Aim of Retaining Freshmen, a Survey Examines Their Experience

John Gardner could be called a freshman guru.

He has taught freshman seminars for 25 years. He has written numerous books and papers on the subject. And now, he studies them for a living as executive


Are Students Actually Learning?

Highlights From the National Survey of Student Engagement

Researcher Examines Student 'Outcomes'

director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College, in North Carolina.

His work often gives him pause. According to 1999 data from ACT, the dropout rate for four-year public institutions was 28.1 percent and for private colleges, 24.9 percent -- the bulk representing freshmen.

The statistics sparked an idea: If one could measure what happens during that transformative year, the results might tell colleges something about why they lose so many students. They also might guide students to those institutions that nurture and challenge freshmen.

Your First College Year, an assessment tool being developed to measure freshman attitudes and behaviors, just finished its first season of pilot testing.

"You could say we've been doing higher education in this country for over 360 years -- we ought to know something about freshmen," says Mr. Gardner. "Well, we really don't."

Helping him to fill in the gaps is Linda J. Sax, a professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which for the past 35 years has administered surveys of freshmen as they enter college.

Ms. Sax, who is leading the surveys, hopes the before and after portraits will be used to create a "longitudinal database."

The freshman study is the youngest of three designed as alternatives to the college rankings. Under the auspices of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped finance the study with an $800,000 grant, the survey was administered to 5,229 students last year at 19 institutions. Mr. Gardner and Ms. Sax plan to expand the study to more than 19,000 students.

The sample is too small yet to provide a national picture, but so far it provides an intriguing rough sketch.

Some findings are no-brainers: 55.2 percent of freshmen, for example, said they were drinking beer "frequently" or "occasionally" by the end of their first year, 11.3 percentage points higher than at the beginning of the year.

Others were not so predictable. More students felt overwhelmed and bored at the end of their first year: 42.4 percent felt overwhelmed, up 6 percentage points from the beginning of the year; and 41.6 percent felt bored, up 4.4 percentage points.

"That made me say 'My God, things aren't getting any better,'" said Gary Craig, dean of enrollment management at Marietta College in Ohio, one of the institutions that participated in the pilot study.

Mr. Gardner hopes to push colleges to reevaluate their treatment of freshmen, whom he calls "a historic underclass." In the survey, students are asked several questions about freshman seminars. Mr. Gardner, who promotes the use of such courses, found that students who took them changed more favorably in the areas of academic ability, leadership, writing ability, and self-understanding.

Students also reported that "extensive lecturing" was the most prevalent teaching technique they encountered, with 96 percent saying it was used "frequently" or "occasionally." At the same time, it was ranked last among methods they preferred, with only 21.4 percent finding it "very important" to their course work.

Mr. Gardner concludes that the large lecture format is a symptom of colleges that view freshmen as a "cash cow," placing the most vulnerable students with the least experienced faculty. "We've created a structure where people like me, namely tenured professors, can do what we want to do, and usually that is not teaching freshmen," he says. "I think that does our students an injustice. I think they want more than just the facts."
The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 17, 2000
Section: Students
Page: A71