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College and Covid: Freshman Year Disrupted

EdSource Special Report

How counseling aims to help CSU freshmen graduate in four years

Above: Brekaylly Blanco, a CSU Northridge student, came to the new advising center call the Hub just before a switch to online services.

New programs seek to keep students enrolled with 15 credit hours per semester.

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Right out of high school and not sure where the advising office is, let alone how to register for classes, freshmen need special care at California’s big public universities.

Without it, they are at higher risk of not making it back for a second year.

That’s why about a quarter of the 23 campuses in the California State University system recently overhauled their academic advising to first-year students.

The idea is for some counselors to focus solely on freshmen and try to solve their entry problems early on. And freshmen are being strongly urged to take a full course load of 15 credit hours a semester, aiding a CSU systemwide initiative to get more students to graduate in four years.

Even with the sudden and disruptive shift to online classes and advising sessions last spring, officials think that this centralized freshman advising method — sometimes called a hub — makes those new students less likely to get lost among crowds of upperclassmen. It also makes them less likely to drop out, they say.

The new freshman advising model “provides a really strong foundation for students. I’m absolutely a believer,” said CSU Northridge Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Mary Beth Walker. That campus began its new advising system for freshman enrolling in fall 2019.

Brekaylly Blanco, a CSU Northridge public health major, 19, of Pasadena, said the program helped her navigate what could have been a “harsh transition from high school,” especially since she is first in her family to attend college and can’t ask her parents for higher education advice. Without the counseling, “I would have been more overwhelmed on getting the correct classes. I was confused about how everything worked, especially in the first weeks,” she recalled.

At CSU Northridge’s now online Matador Advising Hub, 15 academic counselors are serving about 3600 freshmen. (Another 500 freshmen are part of other advising programs for athletes and low-income students.) In the past, most freshmen usually had to find advisers at their major departments or university divisions, where upperclassmen and graduate students competed for attention and time. The Hub system gives more attention to freshmen undecided about their majors than students had previously received.

CSU Northridge’s switch to the hub system concentrates on freshman issues, such as the transition from high school, time management, applying for financial aid and choosing the right courses for general education and major requirements, said Walker. Later, other advisers in departments work with upperclassmen on graduation targets, career prospects and graduate school applications.

At least five other CSU campuses have begun similar programs, including some that last throughout sophomore year, according to a survey by the system office of Student Advising Initiatives. Those include Channel Islands, East Bay, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma. Most other campuses may not have a separate freshman program but all are paying more attention to new students, officials said.

“There is a universal agreement about the importance of the first year, not just in the CSU but in higher education, generally, said James Minor, the CSU system’s assistant vice-chancellor and senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence. The goals are to “integrate new students as quickly as possible into the campus and ensure students are successful in their first year.”

Geraldine Sare, director of the Matador Advising Hub, said the change makes advising more personalized and customized for freshmen.

“This is our population, and we are constantly focusing on them,” she said. It also makes it “easier to get buy-in” from students to take a full course load of 15 units, especially since the tuition for 12 units is the same as for 15 and an extra class does not add to those costs, she said. A sweetener, called the Matador Academic Challenge, offers freshmen who sign up for 15 units about twice as long as usual, up to ten weeks, to drop one course without consequences for their GPA. This “gives student incentive to at least try 15 units,” Sare said.

(To get full federal financial aid, students have to take a minimum of 12 credit hours.)

In fall 2018, before the Hub, 36% of first-time CSU Northridge freshmen enrolled in 15 or more units; that rose to 55% for fall 2019 freshmen, the first group to receive Hub services. That dropped to 49% this fall amid some weariness of online classes and its problems.

Blanco visited the physical offices of the then new Matador Advising Hub several times last year during her freshman year on campus. Then after the switch to online classes and services last spring, she kept in contact with her adviser, mainly through email to help pick courses for her current sophomore year.

Now, she is on the path to graduate in four years. Although she is not seeing her adviser in person, she said having the Hub available “made me feel kind of safe in a way. I had their support and knew that if I had a question, I still had that resource to help me,” she said.

A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Getting to Graduation on Time at California State, emphasized that taking a full load of courses produces early benefits. Freshmen who do so persist into their second and third years at greater rates than others, according to the study.

Larry Gordon/EdSource

CSU Northridge freshmen came to the new advising Hub last spring just before services switched to online in pandemic.

Jacob Jackson, the PPIC research fellow who wrote the report, said that reforms in freshman advising probably contributed to more students taking more classes.

“Getting students off on a right foot is super important,” he said. “It seems that counseling students into the right number of courses and the right courses goes a long way to getting them to graduate on time,” he said.

Months before fall classes started, new CSU Northridge students this year were required to attend a small group Zoom session online discussing registration procedures and then moved to break-out rooms about majors and other topics. Then they could obtain one-on-one counseling meetings, previously in-person and now online. Follow-up appointments are scheduled to register for spring and then to start sophomore year. They then shift to advising at academic departments. If their grades are poor enough to merit academic probation, they must meet more often with advisers.

One downside of online education, counselors say, is that students need more prodding by email, texting and phone calls than in a non-pandemic year to make required counseling appointments. Without seeing real-life posters on campus about registration, more students are coming late to the process. Plus, in a larger pandemic response, freshman enrollment at CSU Northridge dropped this fall by nearly 700 students from fall 2019 although overall undergraduate enrollment rose by about 150 to about 24,000, fueled by transfers.

Still, even with the switch to online classes, the rate of CSU Northridge freshmen who dropped out in their first year declined from 18.7% of those who began in 2018 to 16.5% of those who began last year, university data show.

At CSU East Bay, a similar advising program began last year, although with an extended time frame more fully into students’ sophomore year.

Officials at the campus in Hayward, near Oakland, point to some progress in reducing what has been one of the worst freshman dropout rates in the CSU system. Dropout rates among CSU East Bay freshmen declined from 24.5% among those who began in 2018 to 22% among last year’s new students.

In another important measurement, the share of freshman taking a full load of courses rose by 20 percentage points last year to 38% and then slid back some to 29% this year.

East Bay’s Freshman and Sophomore Success Team (FASST) is “quite an improvement” over a previous system that too often felt “more haphazard” for students, according to Linda Beebe, one of the program’s coordinators. It helps students avoid taking classes that are useless for their major and counsels them on ways to stay in school if they face academic or personal challenges, she said. “Students realize they have that one person to go to,” she said.

If students insist upon leaving, the personal connection makes it easier to discuss possibly enrolling at community college for a while and how to return later to the university, she said

At CSU Northridge, freshman Joan Caro said Zoom sessions with his Hub counselor got him through what could have been a rocky start. Financial aid complications caused him to start classes a week late, and he decided to switch majors from biochemistry to public health, with hopes of a nursing career.

Caro, who is 19 and grew up partly in Mexico, is the first in his family to attend college. Without parents or older siblings who know how college works, he said he especially needed personal guidance. The adviser “taught me step-by-step how to enroll in my classes,” he said. And Caro liked the concept of a center, online or real world, dedicated to freshman issues. “I think it’s a really good idea,” he said.

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