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Studying the First Year of College

By Peter Teitelbaum
Assistant Vice Provost;
Director, Institutional Research and Program Evaluation Group;
and Professor of Program Evaluation and Analysis
New York University

Researchers in the Office of Institutional Research and Program Evaluation examine all aspects of undergraduates’ educational experience at New York University, ranging from their recruitment to the University, their academic and social lives in school, and what happens to graduates after leaving the institution. However, we focus a disproportionate amount of time learning about students’ first year in school. Researchers, almost without exception, suggest that the nature of students’ experiences in their freshman year does much to shape subsequent persistence (Cuccaro-Alamin, 1997; Tinto, 1987; Chaney and Farris, 1981). In fact, first-year attrition among four-year universities represents more than one half of all institutional leavers (Tinto, 1987). Retention patterns at NYU are no exception. For this reason, the first year of college is a priority of institutional research and policy aimed at improving student retention.

To learn about students’ experiences during their first year in college, the institutional research team collects a great deal of quantitative and qualitative data. For example, NYU participates in the Higher Educational Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium, which allows us to compare the experiences of NYU freshmen to their peers attending other member institutions by studying information generated by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) and Your First College Year (YFCY) surveys. The CIRP survey is administered during freshman orientation and collects data about freshmen’s academic and social experiences during their senior year in high school and their expectations of their freshman year. The YFCY questionnaire is administered during the spring and posttests many of the questions asked by the CIRP survey to determine whether the students’ freshman year met their expectations.

NYU also administers biennially an internally developed student satisfaction survey. The questionnaire asks NYU-specific questions about freshmen’s satisfaction with freshman orientation, classes, advising, University resources, student services, social life, the NYU community, and relationships with their professors and advisers. The information from this survey is merged with student enrollment data in an effort to examine the associations between the aspects of NYU with which freshmen were satisfied and dissatisfied and the likelihood of persistence at the University.

To provide context to the information generated from the analysis of quantitative data, the Office of Institutional Research and Program Evaluation also conducts focus groups with freshmen and their professors, advisers and administrators. These conversations allow us to gain more specific and nuanced information than the data obtained from the general questions posed by surveys. We compare the answers given by the students, professors, advisors and administrators, to identify inconsistencies in their perceptions of the effectiveness of various strategies aimed at improving students’ academic and social education during their first year in college. In our final reports, we summarize our findings regarding the different stakeholders’ perceptions of the effectiveness of various practices, the quantitative evidence supporting or contradicting their claims, and suggestions noted in the focus groups regarding strategies to improve their academic and social experiences.

Although student retention rates have increased steadily over the past few years, there is room for further progress. NYU continues to develop strategies to improve students’ academic and social experiences. The Office of Institutional Research and Program Evaluation’s role in this effort is to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data to identify areas of strength and weakness, allowing the administration to make informed decisions when developing policies aimed at improving student persistence rates, particularly during the first year of college.