Five Keys To A Successful First Year In College: Complete College America’s ‘Purpose First’

Five Keys To A Successful First Year In College: Complete College America’s ‘Purpose First’

Complete College America (CCA) is keeping its laser-like focus on enabling students to transition successfully to college and ultimately earn meaningful degrees. This week it launched College, On Purpose, a report focused on a strategy called Purpose First that helps students begin college with a clear sense of the direction they want to head so they can align their academic pathways with those personal interests.

According to a recent Strada-Gallup survey, 58% of students indicate their primary goal for attending college is to prepare for a good job, more than double the percentage who say their main motive is “to learn more and gain knowledge.” Education purists may dislike the relative strength of those motives, but that’s the reality of today’s students, and colleges ignore it to their and students’ detriment.

Combine those numbers with the fact that more than a third of adults say they would change their major field of study if they had college to do over again, and the premise for the CCA initiative is established, expressed by CCA Vice President Dhanfu Elston: “Purpose First is an institution-wide effort to ensure students are supported in making informed decisions about their interests and career goals in the first year of their academic journey that put them on a path to success in college and beyond.”

Here are the five components of CCA’s Purpose First, developed with several partner organizations and tested in numerous pilot demonstrations sponsored by Strada Educational Network:

1. Create an institutional culture that helps students make an early, informed choice of a major. Put “purpose” at the center of this decision so that students formulate sooner in college rather than later their life and career goals and then pursue a curriculum aligned with those goals.

2. Coordinate multiple university resources – recruitment, admissions, the testing and counseling center, advisors, student affairs staff, faculty, and the career/placement center – to assess students’ career interests as they begin college.

3. Inform students about future job markets, the majors that will best prepare them for the careers they envision, and whether a post-graduate degree will be required.

4. Gain early momentum toward a degree by advising students in their first year of college to complete at least 30 credit hours, pass gateway (introductory) courses in math and English, and declare a meta-major (a collection of disciplines sharing several requirements; e.g., a health-care meta major would include nursing, physicians assistance, and physical therapy, typically requiring courses in statistics, biology and psychology). CCA has even identified a magic first-year number – students completing at least nine hours of requirements in their field of study have better odds for timely degree completion.

5. Require students to declare a major by the end of the first year and then ensure that advising and career counseling continue so students stay on track to achieve their goals.

Although much of Purpose First appears to be little more than common sense, its success may lie in countering three strong academic traditions.

First, college leaders often think of the first two years of college as a time for students to “find themselves” by exploring an elaborate menu of course options. Instead, Purpose First encourages “intrusive advising” where most students are default-scheduled into courses well-fitted to a meta-major.

Second, many entering students have been advised to take no more than 12 credit hours per semester – allowing them to “get used” to college and not become overloaded. In fact, for both financial and academic reasons, CCA’s advice is to enroll for at least 15 credit hours per semester whenever possible, necessitating more intense academic engagement than typically achieved with lighter loads.

Finally, career advising has usually been an activity reserved for juniors and seniors. With Purpose First, the rule of thumb is to provide this and related services “early and often,” providing a structure for student decisions that improve career prospects throughout – not near the end – of their college years.

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