Photo of students moving into the dorms at MSU

A crucial marker of the success of a university is the academic standing of freshmen after the end of the first semester.

Perhaps no stage of the college career is more critical to the success of traditional undergraduate students than the first year of college. Students arrive from high school having, for the most part, been closely supervised by teachers and parents, and having been told what classes to take and what to do. But by the end of that first year in college, students need to have matured enough academically, emotionally, and socially to become the agents of their own success, to determine for themselves what actions will best allow them to reach their personal and professional goals, and to hold themselves accountable.  We expect young adults to undertake a tremendous amount of intellectual, social, and emotional development in nine short months.

A crucial marker of the success of a university, then, is the academic standing of freshmen after the end of the first semester. Students who are most successful in making the transition from high school likely have higher GPAs than those who are struggling. Moreover, students who are most successful during their first semester are far more likely to graduate from college than are their colleagues who struggle in those first few months.  This expectation is borne out by our experience at Michigan State University. While our overall (six-year) graduation rate is close to 80%, those freshmen whose first-semester academic performance places them on academic probation –  students whose GPA falls below 2.0 (roughly a C on our numerical scale which runs from 0.0 to 4.0) – have an overall graduation rate of less than 40%. That is, students on probation after their first semester at MSU graduate at less than half the rate of those that don't!

It is with pride, then, that MSU reports that over the last five years the fraction of its freshmen who are on academic probation at the end of their first semester in college has dropped from the historical average of approximately 10 percent to 7 percent.  With almost 8,000 incoming freshmen at MSU, this amounts to almost 250 fewer freshmen on probation and, if historical averages apply, could result in 100 more of these students graduating within six years than would have been the case otherwise.

As Vincent Tinto has argued[1], it is essential that universities address the student first-year experience systematically, to “move beyond the provision of add-on services and build educational settings that promote the retention of all students.” At MSU we have taken this approach to heart by constructing the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative. This innovative organizational structure spans academic, student affairs, and residential units to provide students with holistic support in the areas of academics, residence life, health and wellness, and intercultural understanding. Teams of neighborhood student support professionals from these different areas, in close collaboration with college advising staff, work together to provide coordinated care to address the needs of incoming students. Faculty play a crucial role by filing “early warning” reports on students who are not progressing satisfactorily in courses. In the fall 2016 semester alone, for example, these reports were filed on over 18,000 of our approximately 40,000 undergraduate students. These reports are followed up on by academic advisors, or Neighborhood staff, who contact students to help them create a plan to succeed.

There is still much more work to be done. At MSU, we believe that all admitted undergraduate students have the ability to learn, persist, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a timely fashion. Our success to date is a tribute to the dedication of our faculty, advisors, and academic staff, and the quality and commitment of our students. We believe student success is the responsibility of everyone at MSU. We have ambitious plans to continue to improve, and to study which methods are the most effective in supporting our diverse student body. Finally, as members of the University Innovation Alliance, we are committed to sharing the methods of our success with our peers, and learning from their experiences in turn.

Spartans Will.

[1] Tinto, Vincent. "Taking retention seriously: Rethinking the first year of college." NACADA journal 19.2 (1999): 5-9.


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R. Sekhar Chivukula is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.