Larry Gordon/EdSource
Students work at computer lab in CSU Northridge library.

The letter alerting Cal State Northridge students that they were being put on academic probation was pretty blunt and scary: shape up or risk getting kicked out.

Enter a national project called “Re-Imagining the First Year of College,” aimed at reducing college dropout rates during and soon after that first, vulnerable year in college.

Cal State Northridge signed on and one of the first things that changed was the tone of the probation letter. Now a more supportive message tells students with poor grades how to get help “as you strive to return to good academic standing.”

The new, gentler letter aims to let students know that probation “is not a death sentence,” said Cheryl Spector, campus director of Academic First Year Experiences.

That school is among the six CSU campuses — including Dominguez Hills, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, Monterey Bay and Long Beach — and 38 other universities nationwide that won spots to participate in the Re-Imagining project. Begun last year by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and scheduled to last through 2018, the Re-Imagining group aims to be a clearinghouse of ideas and programs to keep new students on the path to a diploma.

“There is no silver bullet because students leave school for a variety of academic, financial and personal reasons,” said Jo Arney, Re-Imagining’s program director.

Given the national statistics, the Re-Imagining project has work to do.

On average, 16 percent of the students who started at its participating colleges in recent years did not return as sophomores. There is a wide range among the six participating CSU schools, from about a 29 percent dropout rate at Humboldt to just 5 percent at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which is known for its more rigorous admissions standards. (Among participating schools in other states, the highest freshman dropout rate is 57 percent at Harris-Stowe State in Missouri.)

While it is too soon to say whether revised probation letters and many other initiatives have had a significant impact, officials say they expect improvements as reforms take hold and spread beyond the 44 schools. The project also will be collecting data on how many credits freshmen take and how many pass all their classes. The ideal is for students to pass 30 course units in their first year.

The push to retain freshmen is in part a response to the rising numbers of students who are under-represented minorities and the first generation to attend college in their families — many of whom may not have enough home guidance about college success, according to Arney. The goal is to flip the traditional question of whether “students are ready for college” to one about whether “institutions are ready for today’s students and how to provide services if they are struggling,” said Arney, who is on leave as an associate professor of political science and public administration at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse, which is one of the 44 participating campuses.

The schools are examining and adopting such changes as improved counseling, coaxing and prepping student to take advantage of faculty office visiting hours, creating computerized early warning systems that alert schools mid-semester to students who may be at risk of failing classes, providing small grants for emergency costs, revising first year introductory courses and establishing group learning communities in various subjects. Some schools are beefing up efforts to find out why students left school and offering help to return.

What might seem to be easily solvable issues for some people can trip up students who face the stress of juggling studies with off-campus jobs and family responsibilities, said Spector at Northridge, where 22 percent of freshman did not continue last year. So even small reforms can be important. “If we are going to lose students, I don’t want it to be something that could have been prevented or, worse, something that we might have caused,” she said.

Much of Re-Imagining dovetails with simultaneous efforts across the CSU system to drastically improve its graduation rates by 2025. Recent statistics show that only 23 percent of CSU freshmen finish in four years and 59 percent in six years; the goal is to raise those to 40 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Among other steps, the system is dropping its non-credit remedial math and English courses that have been a stumbling block for thousands of students and replacing them with for-credit classes with extra academic support. Too many students had not passed those remedial courses and gotten so discouraged that they left school, officials said.

The AASCU invited member campuses to apply to join the Re-Imagining group and the winners generally were chosen either because they needed help keeping freshmen or were seen as successful models that could advise other schools, Arney said. Other campuses accepted include Northern Arizona State, Sam Houston State in Texas, Winston-Salem State in North Carolina and Framingham State in Massachusetts. As AASCU institutions, they tend to be regionally focused public schools that are not as elite or research-oriented as the University of California or the University of Texas.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Strada Education Network are funding the initiative. Some of the money pays for travel to conferences and some will be used to help campuses design pilot programs in freshman seminars and internships. Beyond any grants, participants say belonging to the national group gives them ammunition if they face resistance to change on their home campuses.

Humboldt State saw it as “an opportunity to learn from other campuses, an opportunity to pick people’s brains to get best practices and get some feedback about what we are doing,” said Alexander Enyedi, campus provost and vice president for academic affairs. He said he hopes to reduce the percentage of freshmen who do not return from the current 29 percent to about 20 percent as soon as possible.

Humboldt, located in the state’s northern reaches, faces geographic challenges. While it is enrolling more minority students from Southern California, the long distances from students’ homes can worsen homesickness and make it difficult if a crisis erupts at home or at school, Enyedi said. So it is important to help create a sense of community on campus, he explained.

Humboldt has told the other colleges in the Re-Imagining group about its programs of shared learning communities for incoming science students. Those groups take weeklong research-oriented field trips to forests, rivers and mountains before classes start and the material is revisited in several classes throughout the year. That helps with bonding as do continuing study groups, he said.

As a result of Re-Imagining, Humboldt also changed its probation warning letter and is starting an early alert system for professors to let counselors know which students appear headed for a D or F and should be offered extra tutoring or other support.

Northridge too is improving and expanding its early warning system as well as holding seminars for faculty on how to make students feel welcome at office hours and use those visits productively, according to Spector. Another change adopted from Re-Imagining was revising the formal label for students who have not yet chosen a major from “undeclared” to “exploratory.” That might seem minor, but Spector said it confers more respect as students investigate which majors appeal to them and could lead to careers.

Cal State Dominguez Hills is adopting similar efforts and has been encouraged by the Re-Imagining group to pay close attention to financial hardships and family responsibilities of “students who walk away,” according to Bridget Driscoll, associate vice president for retention, academic advisement & learning.

“Our students who stop out, usually due to unforeseen life challenges, are just as valuable, just as important to us, as the students who are still with us,” she said. Campus advisors reach out each semester to find out why those students left and what it will take to bring them back, including a review of financial aid. “Those students need to know they are still a valued part of our campus family and have a door to come back,” Driscoll said.

EdSource receives support from a dozen philanthropic foundations, including the Gates Foundation. Editorial decision-making and content remain under the sole control of EdSource. 

SHARE ARTICLE

Thanks for reading.

Can you help sustain our reporting?

Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.

For a limited time, your contributions will be doubled through the NewsMatch matching gifts program.

Comments (3)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. el 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Thank you for this article. I especially appreciated: The goal is to flip the traditional question of whether “students are ready for college” to one about whether “institutions are ready for today’s students and how to provide services if they are struggling,” said Arney Each of these schools are going to find some different issues and of course individual students bring specific problems too, but tracking those reasons, reaching out to kids early, and making sure that … Read More

    Thank you for this article. I especially appreciated:

    The goal is to flip the traditional question of whether “students are ready for college” to one about whether “institutions are ready for today’s students and how to provide services if they are struggling,” said Arney

    Each of these schools are going to find some different issues and of course individual students bring specific problems too, but tracking those reasons, reaching out to kids early, and making sure that every student has a connection to an adult that is looking out for them and can spot trouble before the student really even realizes the issue seem very key to getting the improvement we all want to see.

  2. Sonja 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    My disabled son's first year in a dorm at CSUN last year (moved in as a sophomore after attending community college) paired him with a party boy straight out of high school. Northridge had a two week initiation for freshmen entering the dorms and this kid had settled into the dorm before my son and another student moved in. It was already a pig sty on the first day. This "student" would … Read More

    My disabled son’s first year in a dorm at CSUN last year (moved in as a sophomore after attending community college) paired him with a party boy straight out of high school. Northridge had a two week initiation for freshmen entering the dorms and this kid had settled into the dorm before my son and another student moved in. It was already a pig sty on the first day. This “student” would bring strangers over to drink (he was underage) and they’d stay up all night – drinking, laughing and playing loud music. My son and the other room mate would wake up to strangers sleeping on the living room floor
    (underage drinking and overnight guests a no-no with dorm rules). This kid had turned their living room into another messy bedroom. He’d leave food to rot in pans on the stove so my son and the other room mate were forever picking up after this child.

    After trying nicely to ask him to be a more considerate room mate, my son finally was trying to finish a test online that was due by midnight one night about a month and a half later. It was 11 pm and wild laughter, noise and drunken behavior going on in the living room hosted by this kid. My son finished his test, slipped out the door to report it to the RA (a hallway cuts off view from living room so the kid never saw him leave or come back). The RA said he needed to attend to something else first, but would come by to check later that evening (early morning) . My son then returned to his dorm, put in ear plugs and went to bed.

    While he was sleeping the RA came over to find the mayhem and ordered all the strangers out immediately. He turned to the kid and said; “You’d better be out by morning.” When my son woke up, the kid as gone, along with all of his things plus a few that weren’t his. The student housing office suggested texting and leaving phone messages asking him to return what he “mistakenly” took with him, but he never responded so my son and his room mate learned how to fill out a police report. They never got their stolen items back.

    Rather than have a two week initiation/meet-and-greet, CSUN should have some sort of meeting before these kids move in to explain rules, regulations and the repercussions if they choose to ignore them. Two weeks to settle in is too long and damage had already been done by the time my son and his other room mate had arrived. The kid claimed space as the dominant male and because of his drunken behaviors, it was difficult for my son and the other room mate (who was a nice, religious young man) to confront him without fearing the outcome.

    Kids like this one will not adjust to college life or apparently want to learn. I heard him talking to some friends (who had broken rules and spent the night) when I came to one of the first weekends of class being in session. He was bragging about making $8000 over the summer, but was almost broke because he was buying booze for frat boys, trying to impress them into choosing him. I mentioned there was a dorm mentor who could help him with financing. He laughed and said; “My family lives in LA. They’ll give me money whenever I ask them.” He was not there to learn. He was there to get drunk and get laid. My son and his room mate tried to make it work without causing animosity, but this kid was oblivious to sharing space or concern about taking care of his own business. When we asked later where he’d gone (because the stolen items were never returned), student housing claimed they never heard (or never shared), but I feel sorry for the money his parents wasted on this ungrateful slug. Why waste money trying to get a kid like this back?

    Every dorm should require room mates meet, make an agreement, facilitated by a dorm mentor or RA so all understand their responsibilities (abide by dorm rules, who takes out trash and when, pick up and wash up after yourself, bathroom cleaning, etc). Knowing what is expected from room mates is so much better than what happened to my son.

  3. Nancy Sours 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I recently retired from SF State, where I taught many first-year students. There are various reasons why students don't return after a year or so. The Bay Area is incredibly expensive; some students may not have factored that in before they arrived. But others planned to spend one or two years in the City (to enjoy the clubs and cultural life) and then return to SoCal (or elsewhere) to finish at a … Read More

    I recently retired from SF State, where I taught many first-year students. There are various reasons why students don’t return after a year or so. The Bay Area is incredibly expensive; some students may not have factored that in before they arrived. But others planned to spend one or two years in the City (to enjoy the clubs and cultural life) and then return to SoCal (or elsewhere) to finish at a CSU closer to home. Others decide it’s far more economical to spend a couple years at a community college and live with their families. Flexibility is built into the state system. Private colleges manage to graduate students in four years. If the CSU offered that option to everyone who took a full load, they’d be more likely to hold onto students. (I totally understand the drop-out rate at Humboldt–I taught students who’d transferred from there. The isolation and lack of well-paying jobs made them eager to leave.)