The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hardest test of freshman year? Survival.

Over the past several weeks, millions of young adults went off to college for the first time. My Facebook feed was filled with pictures of parents and their tear-filled goodbyes as they dropped off their kids on campuses to begin their next chapter in life.

For students and parents, the beginning of freshman year is often the culmination of a year or more of searching for the perfect match in a college. It is filled with hope and joy, but what colleges rarely tell prospective students is that it’s also filled with plenty of failures. As the author and columnist Frank Bruni recently pointed out, the freshman year of college is a lonely one for many students.

It’s also the year when most students drop out. In 2015, only a little more than half of students who enrolled in college in 2009 made it to graduation, with the largest percentage leaving after their freshman year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

“For far too many students, the first year of college is still a pretty dismal experience,” said George L. Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “But it doesn’t have to be.”

Mehaffy is leading a project with 44 public universities to redesign the first year of college. Most students and parents think that if they made it through high school and were accepted to college, they’ll jump through the next hoop without a problem. Students go off to college with plenty of worries, but finishing their degree is usually not one of them.

The reasons freshmen get derailed that first year are varied.

Academics, of course, play a big role. More than one-third of students say the transition to college classes was difficult for them, according to a survey of freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. For many students, high school was a breeze, and they had a support network of parents and teachers who directed their learning every step of the way. That safety net disappears when they get to college. In the UCLA survey, some students reported they found it difficult to manage their time effectively, develop effective study skills, or understand what professors expect.

Another problem is that too many freshmen treat college as a spectator sport, waiting for it to happen to them. They sit back and wait for professors to deliver lessons in the classroom. They participate in campus life but too often from the sidelines, so they lack any deep engagement in activities. They fail to cultivate relationships with professors or staff on campus who might lend advice and act as mentors. Nearly one-third of freshmen seriously consider leaving school during their first year, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual poll of freshmen and seniors.

The freshman year of college is in desperate need of a makeover.

One urgent need is to fix the first-year curriculum. “It lacks both relevance and coherence for the students that experience it,” Mehaffy said.

Students have too many choices, and rather than find that liberating, they are paralyzed by it. Even if they have declared a major, many students arrive without really knowing what they want to do, or have aspirations that never match their talents. A student may want to be a nurse but runs into trouble with biology, or aspires to be an engineer but fail math. Or they fail to see the relevance of introductory courses to what they want to do in life. Colleges need to build clearer pathways through four years so students can better see and understand their route to a degree.

That pathway could start in high school. About one in four freshmen take college-level courses during high school as part of dual enrollment programs. Students who took academically rigorous dual-credit courses were significantly more engaged in the first year of college, according to the student-engagement survey.

Another key reform is to force freshmen to engage early on and find their “tribe” so that they don’t feel lonely — and that should start with where they live. After a decade of building luxury dorms with private bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, a few colleges are beginning to move back to the basics. Georgia State University has recently built dorms with smaller rooms and dining halls on the ground floor to reduce costs for students and increase a sense of community. The University of Delaware just opened a new freshman residential complex that is at the center of the academic campus and has plenty of lounge and study space to allow students to make friends and feel more connected.

Finally, professors play a key role in students’ success, but often freshmen are stuck in large lecture-style classes in which they rarely get to talk with faculty members and find themselves interacting with graduate teaching assistants or part-time professors.

In many ways, first-year students need intense, close encounters with faculty more than upperclassmen do. About two out of five freshmen say they have “never discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class.” Three out of five freshmen say they never worked with professors on activities other than coursework, according to the student engagement survey. Colleges should figure out ways to provide smaller classes for freshmen even if they have to cut back on them for upperclassmen.

When freshmen arrive on many campuses, they are given a survey from UCLA that measures their well-being, political beliefs and what they hope to achieve in college. In the most recent version of that survey, 86 percent of freshmen said they expected to graduate in four years. The reality is that fewer than 40 percent do, and the first year of college has emerged as the most critical barrier to students succeeding.