First-year mentoring and support programs are common at universities and four-year colleges, but more two-year institutions are offering a variety of these programs to help students adjust to the college experience.
A survey released Wednesday from Ithaka S+R, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the nonprofit Two Year First Year organization found that 95 percent of two-year institutions offer orientations and 87 percent provide first-year seminars to help students be more successful in their first year of college. These efforts are commonly referred to as first-year experience programs.
Two-year colleges were least likely to offer summer bridge programs, college readiness surveys or first-year mentoring programs, according to the report. But over all, 40 percent of two-year institutions reported offering some type of first-year experience program for students to help them earn their degrees.
Rayane Alamuddin, co-author of the report and an associate director for research and evaluation at Ithaka S+R, said the research into first-year mentoring and support programs show that two-year students benefit from them just as much, if not more than, four-year students.
“Our study places the spotlight on institutions that enroll this underserved population and focuses on understanding what they do as an important first step to supporting them and their students,” she said.
The survey attempts to assess the types of programming community colleges offer to support first-year students, a goal that has become more important because about half of current college students begin their education at two-year institutions, Alamuddin said.
“Many talented students with financial need begin their higher education at community colleges. These very motivated students benefit from strong financial and advising support,” Seppy Basili, executive director of the Cooke Foundation, said in a news release. “We hope to help institutions identify strategies and best practices for supporting exceptionally promising students with financial need.”
About 175 institutions participated in the survey, and they are representative of the more than 1,000 two-year institutions across the country, however, Alamuddin said the survey results may overestimate the extent of supportive services because participation in the survey was voluntary, Alamuddin said. The survey identified a variety of programs colleges offer to help first-year students, including summer bridge programs, mentoring, career services, social events and customized degree plans.
The survey also revealed that despite the focus on career and work-force programs at many community colleges, career preparation was not typically included as part of first-year experience programs, she said. About 72 percent of the colleges said they offered career services as part of first-year experience programs.
“I found that surprising because the majority of institutions are career focused,” Alamuddin said. “We know having career-oriented goals and an understanding of careers can motivate students.”
The survey also found that many institutions don’t just offer one type of first-year experience program and instead offer students various options of activities.
Still, some two-year colleges face barriers to providing these programs.
“In some cases institutions don’t have the resources to add a first-year seminar,” Alamuddin said. “It requires folks to develop it, teach it and requires changes with the registrar to determine how many credits students receive and whether it falls under general education or is an elective.”
Many community colleges also don’t require first-year students to participate in these programs, because many attend part-time or are adult learners who may not have time to take part in these initiatives, Alamuddin said.
But the colleges still offer these programs or adapt them to fit the needs of their student demographics, she said.
At Salt Lake Community College, for example, the institution’s first-year programs have adapted over the years for specific groups of students.
Salt Lake president Deneece Huftalin said the college has been tracking first-year students and keeping them engaged through various student success workshops. For instance, the college is piloting a first-year advising program specifically for students interested in business. Those students will receive specific advising to help them focus their career and education goals, she said.
Defining a first-year student may also be difficult for community colleges, since returning students who have already earned credits but don’t have a degree may not think of themselves as “first year.” The content within these programs also may not fit every student. For example, learning time management skills in a first-year experience program may be unnecessary for military students and veterans, Alamuddin said.
“Administrators know their institutions, and they know what works and what their students need,” she said. “Regardless of what’s out there. It’s about choosing what is feasible.”