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Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College

By M. Lee Upcraft, John N. Gardner, Betsy O. Barefoot, and Associates
640 pages
ISBN: 0-674-01325-5
$55.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Hend Gilli-Elewy

Interdisciplinary General Education Department
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student contains a collection of essays by outstanding and experienced college policymakers, student affairs professionals, and faculty members dedicated to advance first-year student success. The authors attempt to “bring into perspective the myriad of programs, services, courses, and other initiatives designed to help first-year students make a successful transition to college and fulfill their educational and personal goals” (xi). They present current research about the first year of college and what we can do to make it better. The volume continues and updates The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Survive and Succeed in College, the extensive work written by Lee Upcraft, John Gardner, and Associates in 1989.Reporting developments and changes in student diversity, faculty involvement, initiatives, programs and services in the intervening years, the new volume offers a comprehensive analysis and proposes principles and recommendations of good practice. Its six parts are comprised of 29 essays, each ending with a conclusion and practical recommendations.

The authors chose the themes of challenge and support as the framework to organize their findings, thereby relating to one of the earliest studies on first-year college students in The American College, written by Nevitt Sanford in 1962. This overriding theme suggests that student success depends on a balance between a challenging educational environment and efficient support services and programs. The concepts of challenge and support can be understood on two levels. First, they serve as a framework for integrating the different ways institutions can help students succeed during their first year of college. The book calls for creating challenging and supportive learning environments both inside and outside the classroom, and promotes collaboration between academic and student affairs. Second, whereas this volume presents a challenge to all those interested in maximizing students’ success based on the vast amount of knowledge we have today, it also provides tremendous support by the practical advice it offers.

The introduction provides an overview of the efforts made in the last twenty years and defines what first-year student success means, expanding the term to include not only completion of courses and continuing enrollment to the second year, but also

  • developing intellectual and academic competence;
  • establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships;
  • exploring identity development;
  • deciding on a career;
  • maintaining health and wellness;
  • considering faith and the spiritual dimensions of life;
  • developing multicultural awareness; and
  • developing civic responsibility (9-10).

The 29 essays are divided into 6 parts. The three chapters in Part One look at our current knowledge of first-year students and what colleges do to help them succeed. The section describes the constantly changing and diverse demographics and characteristics of today’s student bodies, discusses theories about academic success, reviews research of variables that contribute to student persistence (e.g., student input variables, institutional variables, environmental variables), and ends with an overview of national surveys and institutional practices implemented during the first year of college. Part One underlines the importance of understanding today’s increasingly diverse first-year students, rejecting the stereotyped images of the past, and concludes that many interacting factors necessitate a broad spectrum of initiatives and assessment to understand and ameliorate the first-year experience.

Part Two, “Recruiting and Challenging First-Year Students,” addresses the problems of recruiting and retaining students and discusses ways to establish high expectations to engage students. The first chapter primarily addresses an audience of administrators, delving into the process of enrollment management and ending with recommendations. The other two chapters deal with the problem of what the authors identify as an expectation-experience gap. Kuh suggests that many first-year students find college far less academically challenging than expected, resulting in their being much less engaged in their education. This chapter offers valuable recommendations for both administrators and faculty to enhance student engagement by offering a challenging curriculum and building a supportive campus environment. Strategies to narrow the expectation-experience gap are offered in the following chapter by Karen Maitland Schilling and Karl L. Schilling. They include ways of knowing and understanding student expectations when they first attend college, intentionally socializing “first year students to a rigorous, demanding college life,” (p. 119) and integrating student’s expectations with the goals of general education.

The authors of Part Three concentrate on creating a campus environment that promotes first-year student success. A framework is provided by five principles of Ernest L. Boyer Sr. (1990): a purposeful, just, open, disciplined and caring community that is a highly integrated and coherent partnership between the different constituents of the institution. The authors cover such topics as dealing with negative stereotyping, fostering success of underrepresented minority students, creating truly tolerant campus communities, the president’s role in organizing for first-year student success and the role of first-year student advocates, the concerted collaboration of academic and student affairs, and ways in which technology influences first-year student lives.

Parts Four and Five are twin parts of this work that consider success inside and outside the classroom. The nine essays of Part Four explore how faculty may structure better in-class learning environments, and how developmental education, supplemental instruction, libraries, service learning, academic advising programs and learning communities can promote that effort. In accordance with the book’s holistic view, academic success means not only “going to class, studying hard, and using academic support services” (389), but is also shaped in both negative and positive ways by student engagement outside the classroom. The design of first-year orientation programs, life in residential environments, student support services, and student alcohol use are also discussed.

Part Six stresses the importance of constant, systematic, and comprehensive assessment to ensure accountability and quality in first-year courses, programs and services. Lee Upcraft, Jennifer Crissman Ishler, and Randy Swing give a step-by-step guide for starting an assessment program, and the last chapter discusses quantitative and qualitative assessment instruments.

The volume concludes with Principles of Good Practice for the First College Year and Summary of Recommendations (515-517):

  • Make an institutional commitment by leaders, faculty, staff, and governing boards.
  • Focus on student learning both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Encourage partnership between student affairs and academic affairs.
  • Offer both challenge and support inside and outside the classroom.
  • Communicate high expectations.
  • Foster an inclusive and supportive campus climate.
  • Conduct systematic assessment.
  • Create an atmosphere of dignity and respect for first-year students.
  • Teach students strategies and skills to succeed.
  • Get faculty involved.
  • Encourage students to assume responsibility for their own success.

In conclusion, the authors have written a substantive and extremely useful handbook that provides an analysis and practical guidelines for designing and implementing a successful first-year college program. Policymakers and administrators as well as faculty will find the ideas, research, and recommendations that this work offers exceptionally valuable. Even though the authors deliver numerous strategies, answers, and practices, they also raise several questions and point to different problems for possible future inquiry, especially to the need for macrolevel research. Over 80 pages of bibliographical references and a name and subject index offer a wealth of easy-to-locate resources to anyone involved in efforts to enhance the first-year student experience.

Posted November 1, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Hend Gilli-Elewy.

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