February 18, 2016

Contact: Brian Tietje

Cal Poly Among 44 U.S. Universities Collaborating in Project to Re-Imagine the First Year of College

Three-year project seeks to boost retention and graduation rates among students, particularly for low-income, first-generation and students of color

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly is among 44 universities across the U.S. collaborating in a project to boost graduation rates by rethinking a student’s critical first year — particularly for low-income, first-generation and students of color.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit made up of more than 400 state colleges and universities, has launched Re-Imagining the First Year of College, a three-year initiative to improve chances for success among undergraduates.

“As an institution, our overall measures of student success — credit accumulation, degree progress, retention, persistence and graduation rates — are outstanding, but we have identified gaps in these outcomes between our general student population and these target populations, who hold the key to the future of higher education,” said Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong. “We can do better, and we know it, and joining the AASCU Re-Imagining the First Year of College learning community can help us develop strategies to eliminate those gaps.”

At Cal Poly, about four in five (79.4 percent) first-time freshmen who started in 2009 graduated in six years, compared to nearly nine in 10 transfer students. Retention rates at Cal Poly were even higher: 93 percent of first-time freshmen return for their sophomore year as well as nearly 95 percent of new transfer students, according to the most recent figures.

AASCU officials said that no single intervention will solve student performance and that solutions that fail to reflect the differing needs of a changing student body will not be successful.

The organization’s Re-Imagining the First Year project seeks to identify and test a series of programs, strategies and tools that will increase retention rates and success for first-year students. It hopes to develop a measurable set of 21st century skills — including critical thinking, problem solving, global awareness, scientific literacy, civic literacy and social-justice literacy, among others — that will assist students in achieving their educational goals and, later, launch successful careers. 

“Cal Poly has many programs and units on campus to help students in their first year,” said Brian Tietje, vice provost for International, Graduate and Extended Education, who leads Cal Poly’s team overseeing the project.

The university has programs that target first-year students through campus housing, and each of the six colleges has efforts to keep new students on track. 

In addition, New Student and Transition Programs works to ensure all new arrivals have a successful transition to Cal Poly through three flagship programs:

• Open House, held each spring, to showcase the campus for all admitted students and their supporters;

• Student Life Orientation Days (formerly called SOAR), a two-day mandatory summer orientation program for incoming freshmen and transfer students; and

• Week of Welcome, or WOW, a full-immersion week mandatory for all new students, who are placed in small groups with other new students and a pair of student leaders to explore the campus and surrounding community in the week before fall classes begin.

“We don’t see that there is need for new programs or initiatives,” Tietje said. “What we see is the need to collaborate and better coordinate what we already have.”

Cal Poly is among seven California State University system schools selected to participate. Other campuses include Channel Islands, Dominguez Hills, Humboldt, Long Beach, Monterey Bay and Northridge.

As part of the project, Cal Poly will implement proven and innovative strategies and programs, adapting them to the campus’s unique environment. The strategies focus on four areas: institutional intentionality, curriculum, faculty and staff roles, and student roles.

Cal Poly will also participate in a learning community with the other colleges and universities, and discussions are underway for greater collaborations with the other six CSU campuses.

“Cal Poly’s fall 2016 students will probably see some of the changes we come up with,” Tietje said. “They could impact everything from Open House to Student Life Orientation to WOW.”

The project is being funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds.

For a list of all the participating institutions,

About American Association of State Colleges and Universities
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) is a Washington, D.C.-based higher education association of more than 400 public colleges, universities and systems whose members share a learning- and teaching-centered culture, a historic commitment to underserved student populations, and a dedication to research and creativity that advances their regions’ economic progress and cultural development.

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