An Alternate Pathway to Success: The Towson University Freshman Transition Program
December 2013, Volume 16, Number 12
By Ann Gamble
According to Dale Campbell, “strategic alliances…allow the pooling of resources for innovation and the availability to transcend geographic or political boundaries” (n.d.). The Freshman Transition Program (FTP) is an exceptional example of how partnering together to adapt to the changing landscape has enabled the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) and Towson University to “use the power of leverages to become greater forces of good” (Crutchfield & McLeod-Grant, 2012).
The Freshman Transition Program is an effective, student-centered, guaranteed transfer program that enhances the student experience through the integration of student support services and provides opportunities for students to engage in most university freshman experiences. Strong freshman applicants that the university cannot admit in the fall due to instructional space constraints or other limitations are invited by the university to live, attend courses taught by CCBC instructors, and receive all student support services on the university’s campus for a maximum of two consecutive semesters. Upon meeting the competitive transition criteriaafter the first or second semester, students are guaranteed a seamless transfer into the university.
Students pay the community college for their tuition based on their residency status and pay the university a flat (slightly inflated) fee for academic and student support services, along with room and board, if applicable. These fees cover the administrative costs of the program including personnel, academic and non-academic support services, and funding for marketing and events. All students are full-time and are enrolled in developmental and/or general education courses that will meet prerequisite or general education requirements at the university. The courses are held during the university’s off-hour classroom times, in the late afternoon or evening hours, thus enhancing space utilization for both institutions. The program also provides students whose applications were not competitive enough to enter the university through standard admissions processes the opportunity to enter through this alternate pathway without reapplying to the university and competing against other freshman or transfer students.
Scaling Up and Breaking Down: FTP and Student Success
The Freshman Transition Program has been a win-win-win for the community college, the university, and the students. This enrollment management strategy provides increased enrollment for the community college in the fall while preparing students for enrollment at the university in the subsequent spring and fall semesters. With systems in place to help the students succeed, students have the opportunity to assimilate into the university culture along with other freshman. The university benefits by admitting strong freshman transfer students who may have selected other four-year institutions if their admissions were deferred. As native students leave the university due to graduation or normal attrition, these guaranteed transfers fill that void, thereby assisting with spring recruitment.
Scaling Up FTP Participation. The Towson University Freshman Transition Program has been successfully scaled up from 39 students during the fall 2008 pilot phase to 272 students in the fall of 2012. CCBC has presented this evidence-based partnership model at regional and national conferences to bring awareness to the benefits of reaching across institutions to share leadership, accountability, and resources. CCBC has also consulted with other regional institutions to share lessons learned and best practices to help launch new partnership programs.
Breaking Down Silos. The Freshman Transition Program has proven to be an incubator for other partnerships, a model that can be replicated, and a stepping stone for the university and community college to work together for maximum student success. Working across departments and across institutions has weakened silos and has stimulated cross-institutional coordination, collaboration, and communication.
Helping Students Succeed. The students invited to participate in the Freshman Transition Program are likely being offered admission into other schools, but choose to enroll in the program because Towson University is their first choice. Towson University has been ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges every year since the guide’s inception in 1984. The university was ranked 11th among 46 institutions in the North Public Regional Universities category (Towson University, 2013). The Community College of Baltimore County is Towson University’s number one feeder school for transfer students.
To transition after the first semester, students must be enrolled in at least nine college-level credits or three college-level courses, earn a cumulative 3.0 GPA with no grade less than a C, and if they are enrolled in noncredit developmental pass/fail coursework, they must earn a passing grade. The majority of students who participate in the program are eligible to transfer into the university after only one semester. Each year since the pilot, the percentage of students who transition after the fall semester continues to increase, while the reverse is true for the students who remain in the program the following spring semester. Interestingly, the transition criteria are less rigorous in the spring semester; the cumulative GPA requirement is lowered to a 2.5 and the no grade less than a C requirement is dropped. One positive trend is that the number of students who continue to persist at Towson University or as part of the program after the first semester continues to increase. The level of attrition has decreased by almost seven percentage points from fall 2008 to spring 2013.
Areas of Improvement: Recommendations from the Student Perspective
Since the program’s inception, a student satisfaction survey has been administered at the mid-point of the fall semester to gain insights on the student experience. One-on-one interviews have also been conducted with former students who are now juniors or seniors. After reviewing the data and considering the student perspective, the Towson University Freshman Transition Program is an effective alternate pathway to success for freshmen who are not directly admitted to the university for the fall semester. In accordance with the research, the program allows for academic and social integration on the university’s campus and also provides different support mechanisms for students to succeed. The fact that students can seamlessly transfer without going through the traditional transfer shock makes for a much easier transition.
As an enrollment management strategy, the program allows for the sharing of valuable resources and encourages good will between the community college and university sectors. The age of the elitist attitude towards the community college is quickly fading as we all begin to work together to address a fractured K-12 pipeline that impedes college readiness, a waning world reputation as degree attainment continues to decrease, and an increase in the number of high school graduates who will need postsecondary credentials to fill the jobs of the future.
Student Involvement. Based on survey and interview feedback from students, there are areas within the program that can be improved to increase overall student satisfaction. One of the most important recommendations that came out of the surveys and interviews was to find ways to increase student engagement. Reducing the barriers to preventing students from getting involved on campus could result in more satisfaction with the institution, a feeling of belonging to the campus community, and a population of students who are less likely to leave and go somewhere else. Increasing student involvement on campus provides the opportunity for the university to make a great first impression on new students and will help to connect students both in and outside of the program.
To engage students on campus, more effort needs to be made to improve the class schedule. Although there are some limitations due to classroom space, there are also opportunities for flexibility. By advocating for a wider range of classroom time slots, student schedules can be more varied. By having students specify their interests in student activities and organizations, an attempt can be made to build their schedules around those interests rather than automatically defaulting to evening classes.
Advisor Training. Beyond the schedule, students struggle with understanding how college works, and with the added complexity of two colleges in the mix, they can easily become confused about the process. Since the First Year Experience (FYE) advisors serve as the first line of defense for the program, enhanced advisor training can better prepare them to help new students navigate this complicated process. With more resources like an FYE advising handbook specific to the program and a SharePoint site to post all documents, advisors can feel more confident in their roles.
Orientation Leaders. In addition to the FYE advisor, it would be helpful for incoming students to have Orientation Leaders (OLs) who were former Freshman Transition Program students rather than Towson University upperclassman who went through the traditional admissions process. Having OLs would help ensure that FTP students make meaningful connections at orientation with peers who fully understand the FTP experience. As much as advisors can advise, it is helpful to have someone who can speak from experience to break the ice, ease frayed nerves, and stress the advantages and opportunities the program offers from the student perspective. It also encourages students to give back once they transition into the university.
Peer Mentoring. To bring the program full circle and to help incoming students adjust to college life and college expectations, a Peer Mentoring Program was piloted in fall 2013. Now, as over 1,000 students have entered Towson University through the Freshman Transition Program, we are connecting the past to the present. The first semester of college can be a time of significant change and challenge. Students are away from home for the first time and they are faced with many decisions regarding how they will conduct themselves at college. As they are building their identity, it is in their best interest to connect with an upperclassman with whom they can relate. It is especially important that this mentor has walked in the new student’s shoes as much as possible. Former Freshman Transition Program students can relate to the process, limitations, and benefits of the program. By building a one-on-one relationship, they can guide them toward making good decisions, encourage them to take school seriously, and motivate them to get involved on campus.
Replication Based on Best Practices and Lessons Learned
While the program has already been replicated and should continue to be replicated, it is important to acknowledge the best practices that have been gleaned over the past five years. First, before partnering with a local high school, community college, university, or business, determine the needs being addressed, ways both parties can benefit, and other potential benefactors. Beyond benefits, consider the potential challenges to the program, and plan strategies for securing buy-in from the top down at the partnering institutions. Without adequate support, a partnership will not have the strength to endure the hurdles that will present themselves. Finally, establish a dedicated team that can work together to facilitate a climate of open and clear communication. The team should include a program coordinator who will work with colleagues in the registrar’s, admissions, financial aid, bursar’s, and placement testing offices, and in academic departments, to implement and maintain the program. These inclusive steps can be instrumental in helping the program succeed.
In closing, colleges need to be innovative and creative to meet the demands of the 21st century. Towson University and the Community College of Baltimore County have joined forces to address some of these challenges. The Towson University Freshman Transition Program is an innovative, self-supporting, student-centered recruitment strategy that has helped the university manage enrollment. The program has also provided students an alternate pathway to fulfilling their academic goals on the university’s campus with the support of the community college.
Campbell, D. (n.d.). Another View. OTH Online 5(1). Retrieved from http://horizon.unc.edu/conferences/mccssa/campbell.asp
Crutchfield, L. & McLeod-Grant, H. (2012). Forces for good: The six practices of high-impact nonprofits. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Towson University. (2011). U.S. News & World Report continues to give TU high marks [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.towson.edu/main/abouttu/newsarchives/usnews091611.asp
Ann Gamble is jointly employed as the Freshman Transition Program Coordinator by the Community College of Baltimore County and Towson University.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.