3 Tips That Tame First-Term Challenges

The tested strategies that help new students flourish

A student’s acceptance to college kickstarts a unique time of transition and transformation. Some encounter experiences that challenge their personal, intellectual or financial resources just as they’re beginning their college journey. Without a strong support system, their learning may deteriorate or even come to an abrupt halt.

When students stumble through their first hurdle, it’s all too easy for them to become overwhelmed, lose motivation and question whether the degree is worth all the trouble. For higher education leaders determined to reduce student stop-out rates, the admission-through-first-term period is crucial. Like health care providers, they understand the value of practices aimed at reducing or preventing harmful outcomes.

Below, you’ll find three tips that are vital to offering new students the higher ed version of preventative care. No matter students’ educational background, age or career stage, these practices help institutions reduce summer melt, ensure new admits stay focused and motivated, and help students develop foundational college success skills.

1.      Help students circumvent common obstacles  

Giving students tools that enhance independence at the start of your time together enables them to develop habits and abilities that support forward momentum.

Whether you implement a general communication strategy or take a more targeted approach, you can walk students through college life before they begin coursework and continue to provide guidance as they navigate their first term. 

Institutions have many options for providing this guidance — and ideally, many different channels should work together. Personalized support, digital resources and cohort-based orientations can reinforce important information and abilities, like  enrolling and registering for classes; balancing academic and other commitments; setting goals; and making it a habit to reach out to support services and resources.

2.      Let students take the lead in identifying and asking for the particular support they need

A mix of general and customized tactics can help you serve a range of student populations and educational backgrounds. The same core principles may help most students achieve success — but what each principle looks like in a student’s specific circumstances can be very different.

For instance, everyone agrees that time management is essential.  But for time management tips to actually work, they have to fit the details of each individual’s “struggle with the juggle.” Is it balancing a tough courseload with a demanding internship, fitting in courses between child care and a full-time job, or something else entirely?

Institutions can tailor support by setting up interactions that establish trust and let the student take the lead. In advising meetings, a foundation of trust encourages students to more readily share potential challenges, so the advisor can home in on specific issues and suggest practical strategies that speak from an in-depth knowledge of that student’s experience.

3.      Make it simple for students to identify mentors and advocates

Whether they’re starting community college, a bachelor’s degree or another postsecondary program, first-generation students usually can’t rely on stories from parents or siblings to tell them what to expect.

While they’re committed and determined learners, institutions should remember that first-gen students may be at risk for missing key deadlines—as well as key opportunities for support—during their transition from admitted to successful student. 

First-gen students add richness to your student body, and retaining them benefits your entire learning community. So the entire community should play a part in supporting their persistence. More often than not, these efforts help all students.

Whether they’re officially in a student-facing role or not, ask your faculty and staff to communicate their availability and willingness to help. Have them self-identify as touchpoints for student questions, encourage them to help students stay motivated when pressures mount, and prime them for connecting students to resources. 

Students succeed when institutions do the learning, too

Examining interactions with students from every angle can reveal surprising insights. You may discover “us, not them” issues that impact incoming students’ ability to sail into—and through—their second term with you. Taking a student-centric view that crosses organizational boundaries can lead to new initiatives that streamline your operations and keep students focused on learning.

Get tips from a student. Read one sophomore’s advice for first-years who may be struggling to persist.

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