Undergraduate higher education institutions nationwide experience the greatest dropout rates from the first to second year of college. Among four-year public institutions nationally, the average percent of students who returned for their sophomore year was 81 percent, according to data from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

As college alumni may remember, adapting to a new way of life and learning after high school graduation isn’t necessarily easy. Loneliness or academic struggles can get in the way of a successful college transition.

Research has found that students tend to ask two main questions during that first year in college, says Tim Dale, associate professor of UW-L Political Science and Public Administration.

“Is this normal?” and “Does it get better?” If students answer “no” to both of those questions, they are more likely to leave.

UW-L is involved in a new project this year that aims to help first-year students understand that it is normal and it does get better. A six-minute video was distributed via email to all first-year UW-L students before the start of school this year. It featured current UW-L students sharing the details of their transition to college, including struggles or worries, as well as the notion that it does get better.

“The goal is to help these students make the transition and show that feelings of anxiety and belonging are normal,” says Dale, who has taken the lead in coordinating the video. “Normalizing those feelings is one of the important aspects of transitioning to college.”

The video was created as part of the efforts of a national project that UW-L joined in spring 2016 to improve the first-year college experience, “Re-Imagining the First Year of College.” This initiative of the The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) is a collaboration among 44 universities nationwide. It aims to transform the first year of college to enhance students’ success in school and in the 21st century workplace. The project is funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds.

The first-year retention rates — or number of students who return as sophomores — of the 44 colleges involved AASCU project vary greatly. Rates are as low as 55 percent and as high as 94 percent, says Jo Arney, a UW-L faculty member and the director of AASCU’s national project. UW-L’s first-year retention rate is about 85 percent.

Because UW-L already has a high retention rate, it will be hard to make marked improvements, notes Arney. Even so, the effect of the video on retention rates at UW-L will be shared with other universities across the country though the AASCU project. UW-L is also collecting feedback from students about the helpfulness of the video.

UW-L was a natural fit to do the study because faculty such as Arney are already leaders in the nationwide Re-Imagining the First Year of College project. Arney, associate professor of Political Science and Public Administration, is in the middle of taking a two-year leave from UW-L to be the director of the national project. She is working with campuses throughout the country to network and share student success strategies. One of the biggest achievements they’ve collectively made so far, she notes, is simply looking at student success differently.

“I see a mindset change — people changing the question from “Are students ready for college?” to “Are our institutions ready for students, and how are we helping students be successful?” says Arney.

About the videos

The first video sent to UW-L first-year students will be followed up with one more during the school year. A video on growth mindset and what to do in the face of failure will be sent to first-year students in early October. Growth mindset is the idea that one’s talents can grow through hard work and effort. It is the opposite of a fixed mindset — the notion that your intelligence or talent is fixed and cannot change. Having a growth mindset is advantageous for student success.

Dale notes UW-L faculty have subject matter expertise on topics related to the videos and have been integral to their creation. Tesia Marshik, associate professor of Psychology, has done research on belonging among college students, and Nathan Warnberg, assistant professor of Mathematics and Statistics, studies growth mindset. UW-L media specialist Jeff Kerkman and UW-L student Fu Yang were also important resources in filming and editing the videos. Bethany Brent, former advisor for the UW-L School of Education, also helped with the project.

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