Freshman year of college: It is a critical time and one that can propel students forward or sink them into early failure, depending on their experience.
In years past, it was difficult for any college to identify the specific factors that would lead to an individual student’s early success. For Columbia Gorge Community College, the path to uncover those factors and ensure their application has become top priority.
Leading the mission to identify and engage the best institutional practices for freshman success are Lori Ufford, CGCC director of advising, and Mary Kramer, director of career and technical education. The program they coordinate is aptly named “Foundations of Excellence” (FoE).
“We are focused on assessing and improving nine dimensions of learning here at CGCC,” said Ufford. “These include our learning environment, educational philosophy, diversity, campus culture, improvement strategies and other key points.”
FoE is a national, research-based approach to improving institutional policies and practices; it’s the signature work of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, based in North Carolina.
CGCC is one of just seven community colleges in Oregon that are taking on the rigorous self-assessment and practical changes the program requires.
“Research has shown that if we are able to implement the recommendations within each of our nine institutional dimensions, the increase in student success will be significant,” said Ufford.
The FoE program formally began in fall 2011, but information collection started two years earlier, prior to the arrival of funding.
The source of that collected information? Numerous focus groups and surveys with students, faculty, staff and administrators.
“We have over 100 recommendations for improvements or changes in how we work with freshmen students,” Ufford said. “They include a wide range of suggestions; from communicating clearer milestones to creating a multi-cultural center for students.”
With Gov. Kitzhaber’s push to create clear indicators of success within the educational system, the timing couldn’t be better for CGCC’s FoE program — which will ultimately create a work-action plan, including indicators, targeting a rise in student success and retention.
Gathered data have already been put into action, even before the official report is finalized.
“We’re looking at our admissions placement testing and advising process and trying to find ways to simplify it and remove barriers that are tough for new students to navigate,” Ufford said.
Through FoE work, Ufford and Kramer have also identified the importance of “relationship” to new students.
“Our surveys showed that most students felt it was important to have a personal connection with a specific person at the college,” said Ufford.
FoE is also sparking creative initiatives within college staff.
“We are going to try out a new concept. We’ll create a learning community of students, all of whom will all be taking Math 90 and Writing 90. They will have tutoring and a college success class together,” Ufford said. “It is a way of creating a support group between the students.
“Each community will also be assigned both an adviser and faculty point-person to follow them over their first year.”
This idea, and many others soon to be considered, are the fruit of months of listening, research and labor combined with the college’s commitment to making freshman success a top priority.
“For several years, we’ve been putting services and support systems in place that facilitate students’ completion of their goals — this is just one piece of that work,” Ufford said.