You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Entrance and signage to the campus of California State University, Fullerton, located in Fullerton, Calif.

Research from the California State University, Fullerton, finds first-year experience courses can be tied to higher one-year retention rates and GPAs among participants.

California State University, Fullerton 

First-year experience courses are designed to help incoming students transition to college life and the institution, but how effective are these programs in achieving their goals?

An institutional researcher at California State University, Fullerton, analyzed three groups of first-year students to understand the relationship between participation in a FYE course and longer-term metrics.

The analysis showed students, on average, earned a higher GPA that term if they participated in a first-year experience course compared to their peers who did not. FYE participants’ one-year retention rates were also higher, on average, than those of students who did not complete the course.

The background: CSUF has offered two types of first-year experience courses: UNIV101, which is geared toward students who have yet to declare a major, and major-specific FYE courses, housed within each of the university’s colleges.

UNIV101 at CSUF covers traditional first-year experience material, including highlighting relevant services and resources at the university, how to get involved on campus, and community engagement opportunities, explains Michael Biesiada, a senior institutional researcher for CSUF’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning. Activities include partnering with a student success fellow, attending academic workshops and completing a career exploration project.

In recent years, CSUF has phased out the UNIV101 course in favor of major-specific courses, still delivering student success content but also highlighting how their fields can address real-world problems and assigning students case studies related to their major.

The study: Biesiada analyzed 13,300 first-time freshmen in the fall 2017, 2018 and 2019 semesters who completed UNIV101, a major-specific FYE course or did not participate in a FYE program.

Using propensity score matching, Biesiada created matched groups of FYE participants and nonparticipants based on key variables (Pell status, first-generation status and gender). After matching, he analyzed 749 matched pairs of students in fall 2017, 560 in fall 2018 and 586 in fall 2019 for UNIV101.

In major-specific courses, there were 278 matched pairs in fall 2017, 1,328 matched pairs in fall 2018 and 1,408 matched pairs for fall 2019.

The statistical analysis validated the role of general first-year experience courses in improving retention rates and GPA, with significant results across term GPA and, in the fall 2018 term, for one-year retention.

Major-specific courses also saw students retain at higher or similar rates compared to their peers who did not complete those courses.

Biesiada theorizes FYE content focusing on integrated learning and support systems “can play a crucial role in smoothing the transition to life.”

New Curricula for FYE

To better support today’s learners, several institutions are changing how they deliver first-year experience courses or adapting curricula to better suit their needs.

What’s next: The study was institution-specific, so it “may not be universally applicable,” Biesiada writes in the report. Practitioners should also invest in future longitudinal research that gauges long-term effects of participating in a first-year experience.

However, Biesiada believes his study highlights the positive impact of FYE programs on retention and GPA, making it critical for colleges and universities to continually invest in and refine their program offerings. Programs should adapt to evolving educational landscapes as well as diverse student needs.

“As the higher education sector grapples with challenges such as increasing student diversity and shifting educational paradigms, FYE programs emerge as vital tools in facilitating successful student transitions and fostering early academic success,” the report says.

Looking ahead, CSUF researchers will further evaluate discipline-specific FYE courses to measure the impact within the respective colleges at the request of the deans.

Do you have new data or research related to student success you’d like us to publish? Share here.

This article has been updated to clarify the data sample and number of matched pairs analyzed in the study.

Next Story

Found In

More from Academic Life