Bridging Academics and Student Affairs to Advance Student Success: Freshmen Academies at Queensborough Community College
The first semester of college is crucial for students at any institution, but it's especially important at Queensborough Community College (QCC), where many students are the first in their families to attend college and may be unprepared for the transition from high school. For these students, the first semester is crucial for both retention and long-term success. Faced with high dropout rates, the QCC developed the Freshmen Academies, a new advising and enrollment strategy that bridges academics and student affairs in an effort order to reach students early and provide them with more individualized support to navigate their first year of college.
Since 2009, all first-time, full-time students at QCC enroll in one of six Freshmen Academies based on their chosen field of study. Each academy has one Freshmen Coordinator who serves as an academic adviser and advocate for students in that academy. Academies are also represented by at least one Faculty Coordinator, who acts a liaison to other faculty members and works to make sure students receive high-impact teaching practices in their first year. In addition, Freshmen and Faculty Coordinators collaborate with student affairs staff on cocurricular and extracurricular events that reinforce classroom learning and build community. What the academies ultimately aim to do, says David Rothman, a faculty coordinator, is "take a public institution that is quite large and make it feel more intimate for each student."
Reaching Out Early
QCC currently features six academies, clustered around related majors and programs: Business, Education, Visual and Performing Arts, STEM, Health-Related Science, and Liberal Arts. The academies, says Susan Curtis, director of new student enrollment, "personalize and streamline the whole post-admission process." Students are assigned to a particular academy based on their interests; those who enter undecided are enrolled in the Liberal Arts academy. As soon as students are enrolled, they are immediately contacted by a Freshmen Coordinator, who will serve as those students' principal adviser throughout their first year, says Michele Cuomo, associate dean for academic affairs at QCC. "Before they even get to campus, they're greeted by a Freshmen Coordinator," she says "and they know they can go to the academy office and talk to the coordinator if they so need."
The Freshmen Coordinators, along with the office of new student enrollment, oversee the entire post-admission process, says Curtis, from placement tests to financial aid, submission of medical records, confirmation of major, and academic advisement and registration. "They're able to give students a one-stop resource," Curtis says. But while the Freshmen Coordinators have broad, general knowledge about all areas of student affairs, they're also well versed in the specifics of the academy they serve. The combination of broad responsibilities and smaller pool of advisees mean Freshmen Coordinators get to know their students particularly well, says Anna Schneider, a Freshmen Coordinator who has worked in the Business and Visual and Performing Arts academies. "[Our students] are not just a face or a number— we get to know them pretty well," she says. "They're with us for maybe a year going through the academy for the first thirty credits, and it makes it easier for them to ask us questions."
Building relationships with every student in the academy can a challenge, though, Schneider says, and the varying sizes of the academies means some Freshmen Coordinators have very heavy caseloads. The key challenge for the success of the academies moving forward, according to Rothman, "is for the college to back up its ambitious plans with more funding to ensure that the already over-worked freshman coordinators can, in fact, make those meaningful one-on-one connections, which are at the heart of the academy concept."
In addition to serving as academic advisers and a general information resource, Freshmen Coordinators may also be liaisons between their students and faculty members. First-year students who are struggling academically or having other issues in class may not know how to approach faculty members, Schneider says, but they feel comfortable speaking with their Freshmen Coordinators. Conversely, faculty may consult with Freshmen Coordinators and ask them to intervene with students, who may be more receptive to advice from a familiar adviser. The college has also piloted an early alert system that allows faculty to flag students who are not attending or are in academic trouble, generating an e-mail that is immediately sent to the freshmen coordinator for that student's academy. QCC has seen a reduction in the number of unofficial withdrawals since implementing the early alert system, and an expansion will likely follow, Cuomo says.
Guiding Students to High-Impact Educational Practices
In setting up the Freshmen Academies, QCC made no changes to its curriculum—course requirements for general education and for each major and program are the same. What's different, Cuomo says, is the kind of advising students receive about their courses, and the learning practices that are occurring there. The Freshmen Coordinators are able to guide their students toward courses that will be of particular benefit to them, including course sections that are tailored to certain academies and courses that feature high-impact practices (HIPs) that will be particularly beneficial for first-year students.
QCC has been using HIPs in its courses for some time, says Cuomo, but the Freshmen Academies represent a new effort to organize and implement those practices across the institution in a systematic way. QCC uses many of the same HIPs that are central to AAC&U's LEAP initiative—learning communities, shared intellectual experiences, collaborative assignments and projects, and service and community-based learning. "We've promised that all students will receive at least two HIPs in their first 30 credits, and we're planning that students receive more than that," Cuomo says.
In addition to those practices on which AAC&U has published research, QCC includes cornerstone courses and e-portfolios as HIPs as well. Cornerstone courses are section of required, foundational courses for particular programs—composition or math classes, for example—with content and activities customized for the students in particular academies. "Students become engaged because, say, they want to be a nurse, and they're reading material that relates to healthcare, death and dying— they're engaged because it relates to their major, and they're beginning to make connections to their goals in a freshman composition course," Cuomo says. The college has also expanded its use of student e-portfolios, particularly in the business and nursing academies. Rather than using e-portfolios for institutional assessment, as many institutions do, students at QCC use portfolios for self-reflection, and for presenting evidence of their academic achievements to potential employers.
With all of these practices, Faculty Coordinators are central to the implementation. Each Freshmen Academy is served by at least one Faculty Coordinator who serves as a liaison to other faculty members and leads a Faculty Cohort. The cohorts, says Rothman, one of the Faculty Coordinators, assess how well the academies are implementing HIPs and whether students are learning more as a result. "We're looking at what we're defining as high impact … we're looking at how we structure these HIPS, and how high impact are they—when we do a learning community, are we just doing a shared assignment, or are we looking at really integrating our courses?" Examining samples of student work from multiple points in the semester, the cohort groups also use the rubrics developed as part of AAC&U's VALUE initiative to conduct their assessments. QCC uses the integrated learning rubric, which is well suited for assessing cross-disciplinary outcomes developed in service-learning programs and learning communities, Rothman says.
Another important role for the Faculty Coordinators is serving as liaisons to the large population of adjunct faculty teaching at QCC. Many adjuncts teach at QCC only part time and have only a vague notion about what the Freshmen Academies are and how they function, Rothman says, so it's important for Faculty Coordinators to reach out to both fulltime faculty and adjuncts and keep the academies and HIPs at the forefront of teaching. QCC has also been using the knowledge gleaned from the cohort groups to discuss how students taking basic skills courses (required for students who don't pass entrance exams in reading or writing) can benefit from HIPs, Cuomo says. "These offerings are available to them, but we want to ensure we're more proactive in making sure students receive them and are part of the college community."
Building a Sense of Community
Another important aspect of the faculty cohort work, Rothman says, is "asking 'what HIPs make sense in this particular discipline?' For business, E-portfolio makes a lot of sense, service learning goes across the board—each academy picks their high impacts which they highly recommend professors work with, and that's something that would be hard to establish if it were mandated from the top down across the college."
This academy-specific assessment, along with the distinctive work of each Freshmen Coordinator, has contributed to the development of unique identities for each of the academies. "Each academy has really developed its own character, and each coordinator works to meet the needs of their unique population of students," Schneider says. The collaboration between faculty and student affairs on co- and extracurricular events has also contributed to these emerging identities, as academy staff working to host events that will best serve their students. Having faculty buy-in has resulted in increased student participation in after class activities such as educational films or skills workshops, too, Curtis says—a difficult feat on a commuter campus where many students have work or familial obligations.
That shift in attendance may be representative of a greater sense of ownership and engagement on the part of students. "Students feel at home both in the college and in the subdivision that is their current program," says Rothman. "I think the biggest change that I've seen is students feeling a deeper connection to the college, and deeper allegiance perhaps, because it's not just the college anymore—it's Nancy in Nursing, Alex in Liberal Arts."
It's an important shift for all students, but particularly for those taking basic skills courses—a significant portion of the QCC population. Students who don't pass reading and writing entrance exams are required to pass non-credit basic skills courses before they can take most credit courses. Students may take basic skills courses that are paired with for-credit courses as part of a learning community, and the basic skills department is working toward offering remedial courses that are targeted for students' particular academies. This will not only allow basic skills students to begin earning credits earlier, but will also "provide a place for the remedial students to get a better sense of where they're headed—there's a place for them," says Rothman, who also serves as a liaison between the Liberal Arts academy and the basic skills department.
"[They] feel that there's really something coming next, that they're not just stuck in a noncredit writing class," Rothman says. "Those students know 'someone's waiting for me, there's a future for me in that academy, I just have to pass these courses.'" Taking even one course within their program, or just meeting with a Freshmen Coordinator, gives students a sense of direction at the college. "Students know 'these are the things I have to do to get where I want to go,'" Rothman says. "And that really is the greatest gift of the Freshmen Academies."