“Finis origine pendet,” the Roman poet Manlius wrote. “The end depends on the beginning.” Success in life hinges on how well we are reared — and what we learn in school. More than ever these days, getting off to a good start in college can make the difference between getting a degree and giving up. That makes the passage from a teenager at home to first-year college student one of the most stressful and important transitions in life.
Many popular guides to American colleges rate them on such factors as the number of volumes in the library, the percentage of faculty with Ph.D.’s and the SAT scores of incoming freshmen. There is, however, an essential component that most guidebooks ignore, or have not figured out how to measure: Are the students engaged by their courses? How well do they learn?
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $12
In recent years, in our own separately published guidebook, The Best College for You, Time has named a group of Colleges of the Year, selected not as anointed “winners” of a ranking exercise but rather as exemplars — schools that have taken laudable steps to improve their undergraduate education.
Each year our criterion has a different focus — from promoting minority access to providing academic opportunities for residents of the surrounding community. Last year we used the teaching of writing across the curriculum as our measure of success, and we named four Colleges of the Year that reflected the variety of postsecondary institutions in America: a large university with research facilities, a state university with courses up to the master’s level, a liberal arts college, and a community college.
This year Time recognizes four institutions with highly effective programs to help first-year students make a successful transition into college life. Helping new students survive has, in our judgment, become an essential responsibility of every college. That task takes on new urgency this year, as the children of baby boomers swell the freshman classes of many universities to record numbers in a dorm-bursting wave that won’t peak until the end of the decade.
The profile of American college students has changed dramatically over the past 20 years as the proportion of high school graduates going to college has increased from 49% to 63%. There are more minority students, more first-generation students — and more students who lack basic skills. Far more students must take jobs to cover college costs. Add to all that the sudden freedom of college life and the stage is set for emotional turmoil, binge drinking, and academic failure.
At highly selective institutions, the vast majority of students graduate. But at public universities, which educate most U.S. students getting bachelor’s degrees, nearly 60% fail to complete degrees within five years — and half of those leave during the first year. The dropout rate is even higher at many community colleges, where students are juggling jobs with their course work.
“We operate under the assumption that students know how to do it — or if they don’t, they’ll flunk out and it’s their problem,” says John Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College and the leader — along with Russell Edgerton of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning — of a panel of higher-education experts that advised us during our selection process.*
Thanks to Gardner and other higher-education experts, a movement is spreading to ensure that students exit with degrees. Backed by 30 years of experimentation and data, Gardner and other academics have established that colleges can boost freshman retention by:
- training faculty to mentor and support new students;
- creating first-year seminars, orientation courses and intimate “learning communities;”
- teaching students organizational and study skills; and
- arranging dorms so that freshmen live among students with similar academic interests.
First-year seminars have entered the higher-education mainstream, with 71% of the more than 4,000 accredited U.S. campuses offering such courses. About 85% of freshmen take them, and the survival rate of students who take the courses is 3% to 10% better than that of students who do not. These courses often provide the basis for cohesive learning communities, which spark intellectual confidence among their members. At Drury University in Missouri, for instance, orientation groups of 20 students meet with a faculty mentor three times a week during freshman year to analyze the ideas that shape life in America.
Residential colleges face the challenge of assimilating a diverse student body and seeing that the students live as well as learn in harmony. Harvard requires incoming freshmen to read a booklet of essays on diversity by such writers as Henry Louis Gates and Ralph Waldo Emerson. During orientation, they are put in small groups to discuss the essays with faculty. “Students rate this one of the most powerful events of the entire orientation,” says Richard Light, professor of education at Harvard and author of Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds.
In selecting our 2001 Colleges of the Year from among candidates recommended by our advisory board, the editors sought institutions with comprehensive freshman programs that have improved retention rates and created a sense of community for students. Amid a rapidly growing movement, the hardest part was choosing among so many impressive candidates. We believe they offer good news for other colleges looking for ways to turn raw freshmen into studious sophomores — and ultimately into productive alumni.
*Other panelists: Richard Guarasci, provost and senior vice president, Wagner College; George Kuh, chancellor’s professor and director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, Indiana University, Bloomington; Cecilia López, associate director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; Roberta Matthews, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Brooklyn College; and Kay McClenney, senior associate of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning.
Cite this page
This content was submitted by our community members and reviewed by Essayscollector Team. All content on this page is verified and owned by Essayscollector Team. All comments and user reviews are moderated by Essayscollector Team. In the case of any content-related problem, you can reach us through the report button.