Ithaka S+R and Two Year First Year (TYFY) recently launched a research collaboration to expand our knowledge of institutional practices to support first year students in two-year degree programs across the country. We asked Brad Bostian, president of TYFY and director of first year experience at Central Piedmont Community College, to describe why he started TYFY and the importance of understanding the needs of first-year community college students.

–Rayane Alamuddin

People often asked those of us who started the TYFY organization whether or not we were crazy. Does education need one more organization? And aren’t there already organizations that work with first year programs?

It turns out there are, and they do great work. However, their expertise lies more in the four year realm, and two year colleges are different. It’s not an accident that several of the most important entities that provide leadership, research, and reforms for two year colleges are housed at four year universities, because they are built to do that kind of research. But we believe that more of this work should be done right here at two year institutions, by the educators who run the programs that support first year students at two year colleges.

One important reason to adopt this perspective is that the concept of who is a first-year student and how they fit into the institutional context is very different at a two-year institution than it is at a four-year institution.

Ninety percent of our credit-seeking students who complete orientation tell us they intend to earn a college degree, either with us or elsewhere, yet the majority never will. Take a cohort of 10,000 new students from my institution and track them for several years and you will see that they attend hundreds of other institutions all over the country, both two year and four year. You can imagine the difficulty we face in figuring out which ones to call first year students, let alone how to support them on their wayward, even peripatetic journeys.

It isn’t always easy even to nail down who is a student. Is someone who goes through enrollment, uses various student services, and registers for classes, a student? What if they drop all of their classes before the census date, as between 17 percent and 20 percent of our new credit-seeking students do? One reason is that they lack the ability to pay for their classes, and there are many reasons for that.

Does it really matter how we define first year students? I would say “absolutely”

My hunch is that most two year colleges are like mine, and simply don’t end up defining first year students at all. We help new and readmitted students and don’t turn any student away; I have seen that philosophy in action at many colleges. Does it really matter how we define first year students? I would say “absolutely”: We often lack the most basic knowledge about what is being done to help first year students succeed at two year colleges, or if we do know, thanks to the fantastic work of CCSSE, or CCRC, etc., we don’t necessarily know which of those things we should do, and how much they will help, and what is their cost benefit ratio. And even if we know those things, we don’t necessarily know how they could best be implemented at an institution like ours.

Some of the most promising, research-backed efforts for improving community college completion rates, like CUNY’s ASAP and Guttman Community College, are doing an excellent job of streamlining the entry and throughput of full-time, mostly traditional aged students. But how do we adapt that model for students who aren’t full time, traditional aged students?  Those who practically fall, as so many do, partway through our open door? The fact is, we don’t know yet, but we can figure it out.

To that end, we are grateful to Ithaka S+R for helping us to first figure out what two year colleges across the country are doing to help first year students. How many have separate departments tasked with that function? Where do those departments live administratively? Which programs and services for first year students live within such a department and which are distributed across the institution? This survey will help us to better understand the landscape of two year college first year programs and offerings.

If you are affiliated with a two-year institution, you can help by filling out the 10 minute Two Year First Year Survey, or forwarding it to the appropriate person. And if you have a best practice to share, I hope you will also consider presenting at the 4th TYFY annual conference in Orlando in September of 2018. The sharing of best practices is what the Two Year First Year organization is all about, and I continue to learn a tremendous amount from my colleagues across the country. I guess it’s like Rumi wrote in his poem about the elephant in the dark: If each of us held a candle there, and if we went in together, we could see it.