University of Northern Iowa Higher Learning Commission Accreditation Review

CHAPTER 13: TRANSITIONS DIMENSION


Key Performance Indicators
Current Situation
Opportunities and Challenges
Recommended Actions

Foundations Institutions facilitate appropriate student transitions through policies and practices that are intentional and aligned with institutional mission.  Beginning with recruitment and admissions and continuing through the first year, institutions communicate clear curricular and co-curricular expectations and provide appropriate support for educational success.  They are forthright about their responsibilities to students as well as students' responsibilities to themselves and the institution.  They create and maintain curricular alignments with secondary schools and linkages with secondary school personnel, families, and other sources of support, as appropriate.


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Key Performance Indicators for the Transition Dimension include:

  • Communication to Students: to what degree the institution communicates effectively the lived experience of first-year students through the website, online communication technologies, admissions materials, marketing and campus tours.
  • Communication to Students: to what degree the institution communicates effectively with first-year students about institutional mission, academic expectations, and out-of-class opportunities, entry requirements for specific academic majors, college costs, and financial aid.
  • Communication to Others: to what degree the campus communicates with secondary school personnel, families of first-year students, and other support networks (e.g., churches, community organizations, local businesses) about their role in facilitating success in the first year of college.
  • Connections: to what degree the campus structures and implements a first year in which students establish connections with faculty, upper-level students, academic support services, and other first-year students.
  • Academic Advising: overall quality of academic advising in preparation for the first year and the second year of college.

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Current Situation

 

Communication of the Lived Experience of Students

students on campus

The committee focused the review on themes that are broadly available at an institutional level, including efforts coordinated by University Relations.  Through the evaluation of these forms of communication, the committee determined that the lived experience relating to co-curricular expectations and support for educational success were effectively communicated, particularly through student profiles and pictorial images.

 

The institution is less effective in communicating curricular expectations and the academic experiences of students.  Communications about students appear to primarily present the University as a safe, non-intimidating and supportive environment that provides students with many opportunities to be involved in campus life.  Scores from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) for the “Supportive Campus Environment” benchmark show UNI with weighted mean scores for first-year students of 62.1 for 2008 and 63.4 for 2009, both above the comparable benchmark scores for its peer groups.[1]  However, this communication emphasis on a supportive and nurturing University environment may mask other important messages that might also present the University as an exciting, enriching, and challenging educational environment in which to learn and grow as a student.

 

The Transition Dimension Committee’s findings and concerns were supported by the Noel Levitz marketing research results[2] which indicate that the top three choice factors for students interested in UNI are: 1) quality of the academic program they are interested in; 2) faculty who are excellent teachers; 3) quality of academic resources and facilities.  In the same report (p. 36), market research highlighted that UNI's current “just right” marketing lacks a strong academic message.

 

Communication to First-Year Students

The committee found a lack of clarity within the University community about the institutional mission and found that the institutional mission was not communicated effectively to first-year students.  It seems that the “Students First” theme is widely used and recognized across campus, while the official University mission is not.

 

Table 13.1 below provides selected student responses to the FoE student survey relating to their transition to the University.  Survey results indicate that information about available academic majors, tuition and living expenses, academic expectations for students, standards of behavior in an academic community, out-of-class engagement opportunities, and financial aid opportunities are being effectively communicated to first-year students.  Much of this information is given to students in a relatively short period of time (through a one to two day orientation program) and through print materials.

 

Approximately 85% of the students surveyed on the FoE student survey rated UNI high to very high when asked, “Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate available academic majors?” (Q2), 75.6% rated UNI high to very high when asked, “Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate tuition and living expenses?” (Q3), 70.1% of students rated UNI high to very high when asked, “Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate academic expectations for students?” (Q1), and 59.2% of students rated UNI high to very high when asked, “Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate financial aid opportunities?”(Q4)

 

Table 13.1 Student Survey – Transitions

Question

 #

Question Text

Response

 

1 or 2

3

4 or 5

Mean

1

Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate the following: academic expectations for students? 

4.8%

25.1%

70.1%

3.89

2

Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate the following: available academic majors? 

2.8%

12.2%

85%

4.28

3

Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate the following: tuition and living expenses? 

3.3%

21.1%

75.6%

4.04

4

Prior to attending this college/university, to what degree did this institution accurately communicate the following: financial aid opportunities? 

11.5%

29.3%

59.2%

3.69

11

To what degree has this institution provided opportunities for involvement in out-of-class activities that interested you?

11.4%

29.7%

58.9%

3.69

25

To what degree does this institution communicate the importance of standards of behavior in an academic community?

6.8%

25.3%

67.9%

3.80

1=Not at all; 2=Slight; 3=Moderate; 4=High; 5=Very High

 

For students living on campus, messages about expectations, disciplinary processes, and opportunities for campus involvement are provided and strongly reinforced through Department of Residence (DOR) publications and programs, such as the Panther Planner and regular house programs offered by Resident Assistants (RAs) and Peer Academic Advisors in Residence (PAIRs).  However, off-campus students do not have access to the same level of information about expectations and processes that residential students have.  And yet in the FoE student survey, off-campus students reported a consistently high rating on the information they had received about UNI prior to enrollment (means ranging from 3.69 – 4.34), in line with the ratings offered by on-campus students.

 

Topics listed in Table 13.1 have the potential to be more thoroughly disseminated to students who participate in extended orientation experiences, such as the semester-long CHAMPS Life Skills course for student-athletes,[3] the Jump Start program for minority and TRIO-eligible students,[4] and the College of Business Administration freshman seminar.[5]  Such models could be used to investigate the viability of a university-wide first-year experience for all students.

 

Communication to Others

The Office of Admissions communicates extensively with a group of 18-20 high school counselors through the Counselor Advisory Board, which meets twice per year on the UNI campus.  Recent plans to develop an e-newsletter for a more extensive network of guidance counselors statewide will widen the reach of communication with secondary school personnel.  In addition, the Counselor Advisory Board was recently expanded to include more representatives from western Iowa, an area that has been traditionally underrepresented in Admissions networks.

 

There is a high and frequent level of communication to families of first-year students.  Outreach efforts include parent orientation sessions, a parent section on the UNI Web page,[6] Family Weekend, newsletters from University Relations, third party access to student records with designated approvals, and pre-enrollment events.  Orientation programs for first-year students and transfer students currently provide parent sessions on academic expectations, the Liberal Arts Core, and conversations with faculty.  It appears that a significant amount of helpful information is provided to families of first-year students.  However, institutional communication with parents could focus more directly on the role of families in supporting student academic success.

 

Decentralized efforts exist in departments around campus to reach out to community groups.  There are a number of outreach activities being conducted.  The UNI Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE) in Waterloo is charged with assisting area residents in pursuing educational goals and preparing for careers.  UNI-CUE programs include the Educational Opportunity Center, which promotes post-secondary education in communities with large populations of low-income, first-generation adults, along with the Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound programs.

 

Connections

Table 13.2 of the FoE student survey results provides insight into the degree to which UNI structures and implements a first year in which students establish connections.  Generally, students do not feel that the institution connects them well to faculty members outside of class.  On the FoE student survey, 22.2% of student respondents rated the question, “As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with faculty members outside of class?” (Q7) as high or very high, 33.7% rated it as moderate and 44.1% as slight or not at all.  While the wording of this question is somewhat ambiguous, we interpret it to mean that the student is rating how well the institution connects them to faculty who are not currently teaching them, especially in light of the fact that 71.6% of students asserted that their instructors made themselves available outside or class often or always. (Q63, Table 11.4)  In contrast, 50.9% reported high or very high to the question, “As a first-year student, to what degree has the institution connected you with academic support outside the classroom (e.g., tutoring, advising)?”(Q8) suggesting that the university may be better at providing targeted academic connections, than it is at creating opportunities for less structured relationships between faculty and first-year students.

 

Table 13.2 Student Survey – Making Connections

Question

 #

Question Text

Response

 

1 or 2

3

4 or 5

Mean

5

As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with other new students? 

19%

31.9%

49.1%

3.46

6

As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with sophomores, juniors, and seniors? 

35.9%

37%

27.1%

2.93

7

As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with faculty members outside of class? 

44.1%

33.7%

22.2%

2.73

8

As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with academic support outside the classroom (e.g., tutoring, advising)? 

17.7%

31.4%

50.9%

3.45

9

As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution helped your family feel a part of your college experience?

25.1%

33.9%

41%

3.20

1=Not at all; 2=Slight; 3=Moderate; 4=High; 5=Very High

 

While students are encouraged to meet with professors with whom they are taking classes, the University offers few intentional practices that bring faculty and students together.  Undergraduate members of the Transitions Dimension Committee reinforced the notion that students are often reticent about approaching faculty and do not see it as necessary to their success in the first year.  In addition, benchmark data from the 2009 administration of the National Survey of Student Engagement show that the weighted mean score for the student-faculty interaction (SFI) benchmark for first-year students at UNI is lower than the SFI score for first-year students at UNI’s peer institutions.  It should be noted, however, that while there are statistical differences between the scores, the effect size (practical significance) is relatively small.[7]

 

The FoE student survey, the Department of Residence (DOR) house feedback surveys (2008),[8] and the New Student Survey (2007)[9] all support the conclusion that this institution does a good job of connecting first-year students with other first-year students.  However, there are fewer opportunities for new students to connect with upper-class students.  Approximately 36% of students on the FoE survey responded either not at all or slightly to the question, ”As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with sophomores, juniors, and seniors?” (Q6)  In the DOR, the Springboard program creates freshman-only houses designed to build community among first-year students.  DOR staff members report that while Springboard houses are popular and lead to early connections, they may also provide fewer opportunities for new students to connect with upper-class students in the residence halls.  Plans are in place to establish a campus-wide mentorship program that connects first-year students in Springboard houses with upper-level students living in the residence halls, thus making a department-wide commitment to these mentorship programs.

 

The Transitions Dimension Committee noted that students who live off campus rated the institution lower on items related to establishing connections than did students living in the residence halls.  For example, one item on the FoE student survey asked, “As a first-year student, to what degree has this institution connected you with other new students?” (Q5)  The mean response for students living off-campus was 2.88, while the mean response for students living on-campus was 3.60, suggesting that there is a need for more intentional communication regarding such connections for off-campus students.

 

Academic Advising

Approximately 95% of first-year students are advised during a two-day orientation program in June or July.  This model involves two hours of group advising meetings with Office of Academic Advising staff and some departmental advisors on the first day, followed by a one-to-one appointment with a faculty advisor on the second day, after which students register themselves using the online registration system.

 

A small number of students from ethnic minority groups and selected TRIO students participate in Jump Start orientation during the week before classes begin in the fall, in lieu of a two-day summer orientation session.  In the Jump Start model, advisors in the Academic Learning Center register students for courses (which include clustered learning communities).  Advisors decide on students’ fall semester courses based on high school background and majors of interest.

 

During the first year, students receive academic advising academic advisingthrough a combination of centralized and decentralized systems.  Currently, 38% of first-year students are advised in the Office of Academic Advising using a central intake model, which is focused on first-year advising outcomes.  These students are transitioned to their academic departments at the end of the first year.  Students in the College of Business Administration and the College of Education receive academic and career advising by professional advisors housed in the college.  Most other students are advised by faculty advisors in academic departments.  Additionally, Jump Start participants and students who have qualified for the federally-funded Student Support Services program are provided supplemental academic advising in the Academic Learning Center.

 

Advising caseloads vary dramatically.  According to a spring 2008 survey of UNI academic advisors, 25% of faculty advisors are assigned more than the recommended 20:1 caseload and 21.5% of professional advisors have above the recommended 300:1 ratio.[10]  In addition, 42.9% of professional advisors report that they have difficulty meeting the advising needs of students.

 

Table 13.3 describes results of the FoE student survey responses related to advising.  Approximately 61% answered high to very high when asked, “To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed what it takes for you to be academically successful?” (Q15) and “To what degree have faculty/staff advisors explained the requirements for specific academic majors?” (Q12), while about 54% of students rated the following question high to very high, “To what degree have faculty/staff advisors helped you select courses?” (Q13)  When asked, “To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed your future enrollment plans (e.g., stay, drop-out, transfer)?” (Q16), the percentage drops to 41.9% for students responding high or very high.

 

Table 13.3 Student Survey –Advising

Question

 #

Question Text

Response

 

1 or 2

3

4 or 5

Mean

12

To what degree have faculty/staff advisors explained the requirements for specific academic majors? 

10.6%

28.5%

60.8%

3.68

13

To what degree have faculty/staff advisors helped you select courses? 

16.3%

29.5%

54.2%

3.55

14

To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed how college can help you achieve your life goals?

16.1%

33%

50.9%

3.48

15

To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed what it takes for you to be academically successful? 

11.4%

27.7%

60.9%

3.67

16

To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed your future enrollment plans (e.g., stay, drop-out, transfer)? 

28.5%

29.6%

41.9%

3.15

1=Not at all; 2=Slight; 3=Moderate; 4=High; 5=Very High

 

This information indicates that students are less likely to have entered into conversations about future enrollment plans with faculty and staff advisors than to have discussed more immediate concerns about course selection and academic success.  A greater percentage of faculty advisors rate high to very high the degree to which they are providing information about course selection, academic success, and future enrollment, (see Table 13.4 below).  In addition, faculty and staff in general feel that they are sharing information on all of these topics with advisees, while students are not as likely to rate some of these topics discussed as highly.

 

Table 13.4 Faculty and Staff Survey - Advising

Question

 #

Question Text

Response

 

1 or 2

3

4 or 5

Mean

78

Please rate the overall effectiveness of academic advising for first-year students at this institution. 

15.4%

40.7%

43.9%

3.34

1=Very Poor; 2=Poor; 3=Fair; 4=Good; 5=Excellent

80

In advising first-year students, to what degree do you help them select courses? 

7.1%

10.7

82.1%

4.14

81

In advising first-year students, to what degree do you discuss what it takes for them to be academically successful? 

10.7%

26.8

62.5%

3.81

82

In advising first-year students, to what degree do you discuss their future enrollment plans (stay, drop-out, transfer)? 

12.6%

19.8%

67.6%

3.87

83

In advising first-year students, to what degree do you have adequate training to effectively address their needs? 

12.8%

30.3%

56.9%

3.69

1=Not at all; 2=Slight; 3=Moderate; 4=High; 5=Very High

 

The student survey indicated that fewer students felt that advisors explored long term goals with them, such as the relationship between higher education and their life goals.  Overall, 50.9% of students surveyed rated high to very high in response to the question, “To what degree have faculty/staff advisors discussed how college can help you achieve your life goals?” (Q14)  The committee was able to identify a number of early opportunities for students to discuss future goals as they relate to selecting majors at UNI.  For example, admissions counselors discuss these topics during meetings with prospective students and faculty and advisors lead sessions that include these topics during pre-enrollment events (such as UNI Up Close[11]).  However, the academic advisors on the Transitions Dimension committee shared that they have limited time to discuss topics of this nature once students are enrolled, especially during advance registration periods when many students need appointments within a short window of time to discuss course selection for the upcoming semester.

 

The committee also reviewed the quality of students’ interactions with advisors regarding their academic progress.  Mid-term D/F reporting by faculty is voluntary.  This results in both inconsistent and late information about student academic progress.  In the current practice, by the time advisors receive mid-term reporting late in the term, often the only course of action is to suggest students drop the course.  Earlier and more comprehensive feedback would allow academic advisors to engage students in a more thorough review of their academic progress, and suggest strategies for improvement.

 

Considering all of the data (NSSE, FoE student survey, Academic Advising surveys), the quality of academic advising at UNI is high.  Specifically, on the NSSE question “Overall, how would you evaluate the quality of academic advising,” 81% of first-year students reported an answer of excellent or good in the 2009 administration of the survey.[12]  The 3.10 mean response for this item computed on a 4 point scale (with 4 excellent, 3 good, etc.) is slightly higher than the mean for the cohort institutions with which UNI compared itself in 2009.  The mean for this question was 3.06 for a comparison cohort based on Carnegie classification and 3.0 for a cohort made up of institutions that were similar to UNI and had completed Foundations of Excellence® self-studies.[13]  There is some discrepancy in the data between how athletes, non-white and white students evaluate academic advising.  Both the athlete group and the non-white group (n is so small that it is hard to generalize for this group) rate academic advising more highly than white students do.  This suggests that the supplemental advising offered to athletes and some ethnic minority students increases the opportunities for discussion of important advising topics such as future enrollment and career/life plans.

 

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Opportunities and Challenges

  • The marketing campaign slogan, “Students First” has been adopted more broadly across the institution and could serve as a rallying focus for improving the first-year experience, and this is seen by some as the University’s mission.
  • There is an opportunity to develop clear goals, objectives, and learning outcomes for the first year, as well as methods for carrying these out across the university.  There is a lack of time to adequately counsel students on financial aid issues.
  • Ongoing review by the Office of Admissions and University Relations of the Noel-Levitz study provides an opportunity for modifying the pre-enrollment materials to more effectively incorporate academic experiences and expectations, and to feature more academic departments and faculty profiles.
  • There is an opportunity to increase the frequency of student and faculty connections outside the classroom.
  • There are challenges that need to be addressed in meeting the needs of students living off campus, including non-traditional and transfer students.
  • Models are currently in place for extended orientation and first-year seminar experiences in segments of the University population.  This may create an opportunity to extend these types of experiences to a larger portion of the first-year population.
  • Inconsistent and late feedback, in the form of voluntary D/F reporting, limits the ability of students and advisors to discuss academic progress in a timely manner.
  • The different models of advising and orientation may contribute to a lack of consistency and coordination.  Inconsistent learning outcomes for first-year advising across campus make assessment difficult.
  • High advising caseloads in some colleges and departments lead to less personalized advising experiences during the first year and in the transition from intake to department/college advising at the end of the first year.
  • The Jump Start model of advising for the first semester does not allow for student participation in course selection.

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Recommended Actions 

1. Enhance Communication to Provide Stronger Visibility and Emphasis on Academic Programs and Academic Experiences of Students and to Improve Communication with External Audiences

a. Enhance visibility of undergraduate research, study abroad, and internships in print and other media forms (including recruitment presentations and campus tours), and include more frequent use of faculty profiles on marketing and recruitment materials.

b. The Office of Admissions electronic newsletter sent to a small number of high school counselors should be disseminated to a wider network of high school guidance offices or counselors.

c. Communication to parents should include more techniques and strategies for supporting their students’ academic success.

 

2. Initiate a Planning Process Leading to the Establishment of an Extended Orientation Program or Transition Course for First-Year Students

The program should provide more time for discussion and reflection to increase student understanding and learning about the institution’s academic expectations, entry requirements for academic majors, financial aid, life goals, and other important topics that can be more fully addressed in such an expanded format.  The program should showcase more assertively the academic side of the University including academic expectations in all forms of communication with students.

 

3. Increase Opportunities for New Students to Interact with Faculty Outside the Classroom and with Upper-Class Students

Develop partnerships between academic affairs and student affairs to create more opportunities for interaction between students and faculty outside of the classroom. Increase opportunities for first-year and upper-class student connections through Department of Residence programs, and to explore other creative approaches to help students connect with faculty and staff members.

 

4. Improve the Quality of Academic Advising

a. Ensure financial support to address advisor/advisee loads to bring them in line with national recommendations.

b. Direct the Undergraduate Academic Advising Council to the Provost to implement a plan for professional development for advisors and create a network of university advisors. This should include regular opportunities for interaction among academic advisors from all units.

c. The Undergraduate Academic Advising Council to the Provost should create a Web-based advisor handbook.

 


[1] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/NSSE%202008%20benchmark%20Comparisons%20-%20Supportive%20Campus%20Environment.xls and http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/NSEE%202009%20Benchmark%20Comparisons%20-%20Supportive%20Campus%20Environment.xls
[2] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/Noel-Levitz%20UNI%20Market%20Rearch%20Findings%2012-2008.pdf
[3] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/CHAMPS%20Life%20Skills%20syllabus.pdf
[4] http://www.uni.edu/admissions/orientation/jumpstart.html
[5] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/First%20Year%20Seminar%20for%20Business%20Majors%20-%20syllabus_0.doc
[6] https://access.uni.edu/cgi-bin/parents/par_port.cgi
[7] https://www.uni.edu/assessment/data/nssedata.shtml
[8] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/DOR_House_Feedback_Survey_0.pdf
[9] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/UNI%20New%20Student%20Survey%20-%202007.mht
[10] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/Academic%20Advisor%20Survey%20-%20Spring%202008_0.pdf
[11] http://www.uni.edu/admissions/upclose/facultystaff/
[12] http://www.uni.edu/assessment/data/documents/2009nsseresponses.pdf http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/NSSE%20Survey%20Responses%20-%202009.pdf, p. 12
[13] http://www.uni.edu/accreditation/sites/default/files/NSSE%202009%20Detailed%20Statistics%202009%20First-Year%20Students.xls (See “Advise” line)