Cal State universities focus links arms to get students through risky freshman year – Orange County Register

By Larry Gordon, EdSource

The  letter alerting Cal State Northridge students that they were being put on academic probation was pretty blunt and scary: shape up or risk getting kicked out.

Enter a national project called “Re-Imagining the First Year of College,” aimed at reducing college dropout rates during and soon after that first, vulnerable year in college.

Cal State Northridge signed on and one of the first things that changed was the tone of the probation letter. Now a more supportive message tells students with poor grades how to get help “as you strive to return to good academic standing.”

The new, gentler letter aims to let students know that probation “is not a death sentence,” said Cheryl Spector, campus director of Academic First Year Experiences.

That school is among the six CSU campuses — including Dominguez Hills, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, Monterey Bay and Long Beach — and 38 other universities nationwide that won spots to participate in the Re-Imagining project. Begun last year by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and scheduled to last through 2018, the Re-Imagining group aims to be a clearinghouse of ideas and programs to keep new students on the path to a diploma.

“There is no silver bullet because students leave school for a variety of academic, financial and personal reasons,” said Jo Arney, Re-Imagining’s program director.

Given the national statistics, the Re-Imagining project has work to do.

On average, 16 percent of the students who started at its participating colleges in recent years did not return as sophomores. There is a wide range among the six participating CSU schools, from about a 29 percent dropout rate at Humboldt to just 5 percent at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which is known for its more rigorous admissions standards. (Among participating schools in other states, the highest freshman dropout rate is 57 percent at Harris-Stowe State in Missouri.)

While it is too soon to say whether revised probation letters and many other initiatives have had a significant impact, officials say they expect improvements as reforms take hold and spread beyond the 44 schools. The project also will be collecting data on how many credits freshmen take and how many pass all their classes. The ideal is for students to pass 30 course units in their first year.

The push to retain freshmen is in part a response to the rising numbers of students who are under-represented minorities and…

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