Aug. 25, 2009
First-year experience expert calls sense of purpose key to college success
One of the nation's premier experts on freshman retention and academic success spoke at Northwest Aug. 25 during a day-long event marking the 25th anniversary of the University's Freshman Seminar.
Dr. John N. Gardner is a professor, author, editor, speaker and consultant who has risen to prominence as a freshman advocate. He is widely known for developing the concept known in higher education as "the first-year experience," a phrase he coined.
Currently president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, Gardner is also executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College.
Northwest's Freshman Seminar is a one-credit course designed to introduce new students to the University and help them adjust to a college environment. Students are expected to develop a personal plan for success while learning about academic programs, career exploration, campus and community resources, and opportunities for cultural and co-curricular activities.
During a press conference prior to making a presentation to Northwest Peer Advisors and Freshman Seminar instructors, Gardner said a range of issues affect first-year college students, from so-called helicopter parents -- who hover intrusively over their children's lives via e-mail and cell phones -- to the increasing numbers of young people who must work in order to pay for their education.
"The students' abilities to stay in touch with their families, that's quite different than it has been in generations past, and that's something that colleges have to deal with," Gardner said. "I don't think it's something that we can beat. I think it's something that we need to join and try to be more supportive of, facilitative of."
As for those who must both work and go to school, Gardner said the impact may not be as dire as some in higher education believe.
"Educators like to lament the fact that college students are working while they're enrolled," he said. "The evidence is, though, when you compare all students who work with those who don't work, students who work are more likely to graduate from college."
Gardner said the issue is not so much whether beginning college students work but where they work and how much.
"If you work on campus, your probability of graduating is actually greater than if you don't work on campus, and it's also greater than if you work off campus. If you work 15 hours or less (a week) your probability of graduating is greater than if you don't work at all."
Whatever the changes and challenges facing today's new college students, Gardner said, programs like Northwest's Freshman Seminar, which is proven to boost academic success, are essential. This is because the vast majority of jobs now require at least some form of post-secondary education.
"The reality is that, if you don't have some advanced education beyond high school, you are going to be underemployed in the economy as we've structured it. And there are huge implications for our economy and our national defense as a result of that," he said.
One of the most important functions of a well-designed first-year college experience, Gardner said, is to give students a chance to mature as they move toward making important choices that will influence the rest of their lives.
New college students, according to Gardner, must be taught to handle new freedoms and, above all, to achieve purpose -- qualities, he said, that Northwest's Freshman Seminar deliberately and systematically encourages.
"The development of purpose is the single most important task any student has to accomplish," Gardner said. "If you don't develop purpose you're not nearly as likely to be motivated, go to class, make wise choices. It's just a central developmental objective. And that's something a university like this spends a lot of time helping students think through."
Northwest, which routinely achieves high rates of student success, does so, Gardner said, because it offers freshmen proven strategies for achieving their academic goals.
"It's about learning the Northwest way," he said. "There is a very intentional culture here that students don't know when they arrive, but that they are taught."
The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education Web site is located at http://www.jngi.org/ . Gardner's appearance at Northwest was supported by a Culture of Quality grant through the Office of the Provost.
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