FOCUS, Seminars gain recognition, $38,000 grant for ‘Transition Center’

student-retention programsRecognition of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s success with a pair of freshmen-retention initiatives —the First-Year Seminar program and FOCUS — has yielded additional funding to further those efforts.

UW-Green Bay was recently selected to receive a $37,901 Growth Agenda Grant for 2011-12. The competitive grant awarded by the UW System supports high-impact practices for boosting student retention and graduation rates.

UW-Green Bay will use its grant to establish the “Center for Students in Transition.”

The Center will address strategies to assist new freshmen and transfers — the students typically most at risk to stop out or drop out — in making successful transitions to university life. The grant charges UW-Green Bay with developing and modeling best practices for possible replication at other UW System institutions.

Scott Furlong

Scott Furlong

Scott Furlong, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and lead author of the grant proposal, says the award reflects UW-Green Bay’s recent history in taking an enterprising approach to retention, degree attainment and the success of diverse learners.

“We’d like to be a beacon, not only locally, but beyond,” Furlong says. “We already share information, at national and regional conferences and within the UW System, about our successes and challenges, so this grant allows us to better document and, we hope, expand those efforts.

“The grant is also much-deserved recognition for the dedicated work of faculty and staff across the University.”

Signs of success

UW-Green Bay officials are encouraged by data indicating significant retention benefits from the ongoing First-Year Seminar initiative. The pilot project in recent years has grown to enroll at least one-third of all new freshmen in a Seminar course.

The courses provide students a small-class experience, more interaction with faculty and peers, and a higher level of direct engagement with issues and information than is typical in a larger, general-education course. Faculty members report being encouraged by the way participants seem to better adjust to the critical thinking, problem solving and study skills associated with university-level work.

The impact on retention is promising. As of early July, among last fall’s freshmen with the benefit of a First-Year Seminar course, 82 percent had already registered to return for fall 2011 to begin their sophomore years. That’s a solid retention rate and roughly 10 points ahead of those who didn’t take a Seminar course.

(The retention differentials in previous years were more modest, but still consistent, with advantages in the 3- to 5-point range for new freshmen who took a First-Year Seminar.)

Additionally, follow-up surveys show seminar students reporting they were more likely to contribute to class discussion, be exposed to different ideas, and complete coursework that emphasized applications. They also attended more co-curricular activities, reported improvement in their writing, and believed the class eased their adjustment to college.

Return on investment

While the University has pursued additional funding to expand First-Year Seminars and mount more of the smaller sections, scarce resources and another round of state budget cuts make that result unlikely, at least in the coming year, and the UW System Grant cannot be applied to hire more instructors.

Furlong and others, however, believe that the new Center for Students in Transition will yield results in faculty and curriculum development. With better understanding of which teaching techniques work best and which freshmen benefit most from the experience, the institution will seek to extend the effectiveness of its retention initiatives even at current size and scale.

Also encouraging is research suggesting that such initiatives can be particularly effective with students from traditionally under-represented groups. One of the Center’s priorities will be to more thoroughly explore those findings.

Moving forward

In the long term, advocates say, success for the Center should translate to higher student achievement, personal success for more students and graduates, and perhaps steadier enrollment and tuition revenue for the institution.

The first step in establishing the Center will be appointment of a UW-Green Bay faculty member to assume part-time duties as director. Immediate objectives will include the pursuit of additional grants and fundraising opportunities, and the hosting of an annual academic conference related to the Center’s research.

Principal investigator for the project is Furlong. Others listed as investigators are Associate Dean Donna Ritch, Dean of Students Brenda Amenson Hill, Director of Institutional Research Debbie Furlong, and Profs. Denise Bartell, Regan Gurung and Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges of Human Development, Andrew Kersten and Kim Nielsen of Democracy and Justice Studies, Aeron Haynie of Humanistic Studies, and Steve Meyer of Natural and Applied Sciences.

Links to FOCUS

The First-Year Seminar program is linked closely to the universitywide initiative known as FOCUS (First-year Opportunities and Connections for UW-Green Bay Students). FOCUS represents a targeted effort to design registration, orientation, welcome activities and first-year programs to ensure new students a fast start.

So far, students who take part in FOCUS events and take a First-Year Seminar course are performing better in classes and more likely to remain enrolled.

Currently FOCUS serves all incoming freshman through a variety of programs including Resources and Registration (R&R), Orientation, First-Year Seminars, Majors Fair, and other events. The University continues to monitor and evaluate all of its FOCUS program and how they support student success

“Ultimately, we would like to expand what we’re doing so that all new students will experience high-impact programs, classes and a rigorous liberal arts curriculum,” Furlong says.