January 20, 2018

The trouble with first year experience programs

Tawan Perry - The Trouble With First Year Experience Programs

As a graduate of three distinctly different institutions, a former college administrator at four distinctly different institutions, and student leader, I’ve had an opportunity to see higher education from many different prospectives. Unfortunately, from what I’ve observed is that most institutions make the mistake of handling the first year experience in a “survival of the fittest” fashion. Most schools, frontload first year students with too much information during the first week of school.

In my experience, I started to ask myself the question of who are we trying to benefit, ourselves or the students? Granted, student affairs professionals are overworked and underpaid, however, is student orientation just something that we spend weeks planning just to mark it off after the first week and never revisit over the course of the year?

As a former college administrator, I completely understand the necessity of first year orientation—getting students familiar with their new environment, helping students connect with other students, and of course letting students know how things are done at the institution. However, what I don’t get and will probably always struggle with is the way that it’s done. Most institutions will say it’s a method to their orientation madness. I say it’s just madness.

In my travels, orientation has become something like students cramming for an exam without taking the class and expecting them to pass the class. If we really want to improve retention and graduation rates, we should pay more attention to the other years. In my opinion, first year students and sophomores have some of the same struggles. That struggle is chiefly getting connected and staying connected. The first year experience should be connected to a sophomore experience. In doing so, I believe we will witness more students getting connected and staying connected and graduating. Something that will move us all forward.

When you take a look at higher education dropout rates of most schools you find that sophomore drop outs rates are very similar to the first year. Its certainly obvious why first years drop out—homesickness, lack of academic readiness, lack of social and academic balance, finances, etc. However, what’s often never discussed is the inability to navigate college as a plausible reason for dropping out. In other words, we all tell students to go to college, but we never tell them how to get connected and stay connected while in college.

While, the inability to navigate the college environment is common in the majority of first years, the dilemma is that this problem persist during each year of college. Because each college year requires a specific type of navigation, this valuable skill set goes undeveloped. So what is higher education doing about this? In the case of first years, we attempt to connect them during orientation (which is usually limited to the first three days). Students don’t really need an overload of information over a short period of time. They need resource refreshers each year. If students are really lucky, they are required to take first year seminar classes. But what about sophomores, juniors, and seniors?

We shouldn’t assume because these students have survived the first or second year that they do not require the same level of care that you would give first year—welcome back week, orientation, and assistance during move in. Just because a student is familiar with the environment doesn’t mean that they are connected.

I’m pleased that some scholars and schools are starting to get that there is a need for a sophomore experience, however, what college students need is a guide to help not only get them connected at every level but help them understand the importance of staying connected to the institution.When college and universities truly embrace the idea of staying connected and getting connected instead of “the survival of the fittest”, they will see increased retention rates, graduation rates, alumni giving, and most importantly a transformation in society for the better.

Get Connected. Stay Connected. Graduate.

About the Author: Tawan Perry (24 Posts)

Tawan Perry is the creator of the comprehensive Connect-5 College Completion Program. As a college speaker and as both a former student leader and college administrator, Tawan uses the Connect-5 College Completion program to help guide students step by step from college prep to cap and gown.


  1. Hey Tawan, I couldn’t agree with you more! When you look at student retention rates, research has showed that people who are less engaged on campus are the ones most likely to drop out. It’s interesting to notice that students dropping out are not the C- or D students, but the B or C students who are not involved on campus after orientation week.

    We wrote about this exact subject this week. http://hub.oohlalamobile.com/2015/03/what-your-first-year-programs-can-do.html

  2. I agree with you completely, Tawan. National trends suggest that more students are failing to complete their education than are succeeding. Of course, not all of that can be blamed on first year experience programs, but perhaps those programs can do more and, as you suggest, be expanded in order to buck those trends. I do a lot of work with Orientation Leaders and I have found several schools moving more to a mentorship type of concept, with the O/L’s continuing to have a relationship with the new students throughout at least the first semester. In a perfect world, you would have evaluation and reconnection through the first year for those students and revisit some of the bonding and other activities done at orientation. I would do another program at the end of the first semester to help insure those students return in the spring. If not for those darn finals! Great ideas, Tawan!

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