College students across the country are transitioning from high school to higher education, learning how to navigate their college schedule and taking tentative first steps toward future success. Many others are returning to the classroom after an extended absence. While these fresh experiences are exciting, they are also remarkably important. Research now shows that a college student’s first year largely determines whether or not that student earns a degree.

Dr. John Gardner has spent his professional career focusing on ensuring that students get started on the right foot. As president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, and through the Foundations for Excellence program, he helps colleges and universities nationwide examine their own practices to create benchmarks of student learning and success. Last year, Waubonsee Community College participated in Foundations of Excellence to look at how we can improve our first-year student outcomes.

Students, faculty and staff from across Waubonsee’s network of four campuses came together to evaluate nine dimensions of the first-year experience. Surveys of students and employees, a comprehensive review of existing data and a thorough examination of other evidence enabled Waubonsee to see where we should concentrate to make the biggest positive impact on a student’s first year. Our goal is ultimately to increase retention and completion. The action items we identified have now been prioritized and refined to seven targeted goals.

We found that while students receive access to numerous resources designed to help them succeed, there is not an emphasis on delivering these programs and services differently to first-year students. Better identifying the first-year student and other student characteristics will allow the college to build more powerful connections to assist students. Similarly, we found that not all students even know about our many resources. Communication will be enhanced to create stronger linkages between students and the resources we know lead to success. Data and outcomes are going to be a big part of the improvement process. We are implementing a cutting-edge data warehouse this fall which will allow us to use data more effectively and efficiently to transform the student experience. Faculty and staff professional development will now include resources to specifically aid the first-year student. Components of the college’s instruction will also be evaluated to ensure access and responsiveness to first-year student needs.

This plan will guide us as we seek to improve each student’s first-year experience and learning outcomes. Some change will be immediate and clear; other changes may take longer to implement. As a community college, improving the first-year experience is absolutely critical. We also recognize that many of our students choose to transfer on to a four-year college after completing their coursework or degree. That’s why this year we’re working again with the Gardner Institute to evaluate and improve the transfer experience of our students. An exciting element of this year’s project is the direct involvement of Dr. Gardner himself, which allows Waubonsee to benefit from his decades of work in the field.

As prospective college students consider which college to attend, they should review whether the colleges they’re considering demonstrate a clear commitment to first-year student success. Waubonsee is such an institution. By participating in Foundations of Excellence, we have the framework to raise the level of student success — ensuring students have the opportunity to meet their full potential and become productive members of the workforce and our community.