First-Generation Student Success at Georgia Highlands College
For some first-year students, the "vocabulary of college" is a native language they've been hearing all their lives. They understand terms like "prerequisite" and "non-credit-bearing course"—or they know who to ask if they don't understand. But for many of the students at Georgia Highlands College, a two-year transfer-mission school within the University System of Georgia, the vocabulary of college might as well be a foreign language. "Many of our students are first generation and their families don't have any experience with college," explains Laura Musselwhite, associate dean for strategic planning, assessment, and accreditation at GHC. "These students may not have been serious about education in high school. But we're serious about making them aware of the culture of college life." With a mission to have every student graduate with an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution, GHC has been working to institute programs aimed at increasing retention and improving student success by helping students become fluent in the vocabulary of college.
Freshman College Studies
GHC had an introductory "study skills" course in the past, but it was a lecture-based course that was optional for entering students, and evaluations showed that students didn't gain a great deal from the course. That changed recently, when administrators decided to make the course mandatory for any student whose placement test results indicated a need for remediation in at least two of three academic areas (reading, math, and/or English). Libby Gore became director of the First-Year Experience program at GHC, and, with her colleague Jennifer Purcell, an academic adviser and the coordinator of service learning, revamped the course from the ground up, basing changes on what research has shown most benefits students. "We took the course in an experiential direction," Gore explains. "I wanted to have students experience and practice the curriculum, rather than just have it told to them." Gore and Purcell decided to use the original course textbook, called Becoming a Master Student, but almost everything else about the course changed, starting with the name. With the subtitle, "The College Experience," the revamped Freshman College Studies course focuses on immediately applicable skills students can use in other courses, as well as on building feelings of belonging and support among students for whom the first semester of college can feel overwhelming.
To help students feel part of the college community right away, Gore and Purcell introduced a collaborative experiential learning component to the course called the Citizen Project. "Right from the start, we want students to learn valuable lessons from service learning about being involved in our community, whether on campus or in the county where they live," Gore says. The Citizen Project constitutes about one-third of the students' work in Freshman College Studies, Purcell explains. Working in teams, students choose a sociopolitical issue to investigate from local, national, and global perspectives. Each team then develops a partnership with a local organization to complete a project to increase awareness or action on the chosen topic, and each student writes pre- and post-experience reflection essays on the topic of citizenship, community, and responsibility. One standout team this fall worked in partnership with the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia to bring free counseling and AIDS testing to campus, Gore says. Another group focused on animal rights and responsible pet ownership. "The Citizen Project involves a deliberate effort to tie the knowledge into campus. We want students to bring back what they learn in the community," Purcell explains. Teams also host booths at GHC's volunteer fair to share their project results with the wider college community.
Though the pilot semester of Freshman College Studies only included four sections, sixteen more sections are planned for spring 2011, and preliminary assessment results show that students find the course helpful and engaging. "One consistent comment we got on the assessment survey was that this course was different, in an exciting way, from students' other courses," Gore says. "One student called it a breath of fresh air." In addition to their work on the Citizen Project, students in Freshman College Studies participate in a "21st Century Research Skills" workshop taught by a librarian, complete diversity and leadership activities, and write reflective essays that will, starting in spring 2011, be collected in electronic portfolios. Purcell is also gathering data about students' perceptions of citizenship; after the program's first year, she hopes to be able to determine whether student who take the course demonstrate greater civic engagement than their peers—as well as whether their retention and eventual graduation rates are improved.
The course also includes plenty of discussion of more traditional study skills topics, like how to prepare for tests, where to seek academic help on campus, and how to approach advising sessions and decipher the course catalog—all part of the "college vocabulary," Musselwhite explains. "By getting this population of students who require academic remediation into the Freshman College Studies course, we're reaching the ones who really need this support," she says.
Encouraging Students to Excel
But students with the potential to excel are receiving new focus at GHC as well. With the introduction of a new student success recognition program and a collegewide honors program, administrators are hoping to encourage students to stay at GHC for longer consecutive periods of time. "A lot of access institutions have the same problem we have: students might come for a semester or two, take a few classes, and then move on," Musselwhite says. "We'd love to see them graduate with an associate's degree before transfer or at least stay with us for the entire core curriculum." So GHC has implemented some tangible benefits for students who are committed to educational continuity. The first benefit is a recognition program for students who reach the thirty-hour mark—sophomore status at GHC. Students who earn thirty credit hours receive a special letter from the college president and are invited to an academic celebration. " Two-year schools often find that we spend an large portion of our time catering to those who are at risk . We're really trying to recognize the persistence of those students who are succeeding," Musselwhite says.
The second program to encourage student success is a newly revamped honors program. In the past, students could do an honors project if they developed one with a professor, but there was no defined benefit to such projects, and few students completed them. The new honors program, developed by Sharryse Henderson, an assistant professor of biology and the honors program director, provides clear benchmarks for students to reach and tangible benefits for participation—including priority class registration, classes of fifteen students or fewer, increased exposure to scholarship, and, for those who achieve at the highest levels, special recognition on the transcript. "We've created levels of achievement within the program to encourage more students to participate," Henderson explains. "Instead of having to complete the entire program, students can meet one of the achievement levels—fellow, scholar, or sage. So a student might not finish the whole program, but if they still have a goal to meet—say the scholar level—it provides a challenge that's reachable." Students who achieve at the fellow and scholar levels by completing a required number of honors courses with at least a C average get a certificate and are recognized in a yearly Honors Day program, while students who complete the sage level get to wear honors graduation regalia and receive special commendations on their diploma and transcript.
Any student can apply for the honors program, and those who do not initially meet the program's 3.5 GPA requirement can apply for conditional acceptance. "Our hope is that the honors program is not exclusive, but it is instead an opportunity for students to excel at all levels," Henderson says. Musselwhite explains that the honors program has twofold mission: to challenge students and faculty, but also to provide another incentive for students to work hard and persist toward graduation or transfer.
Expanding the First-Year Experience
GHC's ultimate goal is to have every incoming freshman complete the Freshman College Studies course, and also a second linked course, Career and Decision Making, that will help students understand how their academic choices and potential careers are linked. GHC is also planning to expand its First-Year Experience program—which now consists of only Freshman College Studies and an optional checklist of other activities for incoming students—to include learning communities, e-portfolios for all incoming students, and service learning. While certain faculty members have been using some or all of these methods on an individual basis, standardizing them into one program will ensure that the benefits are available to all students. The idea, Musselwhite says, is to develop a comprehensive set of experiences for students' first two semesters on campus to help them become acclimated to college and increase the chances that they'll stay and succeed. "Two-year schools can have a stigma sometimes. We're trying to do all we can to give our students confidence and positive feelings about being here and continuing."