How Important Are the First Few Weeks of College? the Long Term Effects of Initial College Experiences

Article excerpt

This study sought to examine whether college students' initial experiences, specifically experiences during the first few weeks of college, could be linked to degree completion. The study focused on a cohort of first year students at a mid-size, four year public university. Three types of initial experiences were included in the model-employment, initial social adjustment and initial academic adjustment. Initial social adjustment was linked to higher probabilities of degree completion, even when pre-entry characteristics and educational commitment were included in the model. The findings suggest that universities should continue to focus attention on social activities and social adjustment as soon as students arrive on campus.

**********

The move from high school to college can present a major challenge to students trying to make the transition. "While many students soon adjust, others have great difficulty in separating themselves from past associations and/or in adjusting to the academic and social life of the college." (Tinto, 1993, p. 163). Levitz and Noel said "The freshman's most critical transition period occurs during the first two to six weeks" (1989, p.66). Similarly, Pascarella and Terenzini emphasized the importance of the first few weeks. They suggested that "the initial encounters with the institution and its people can have profound effects on subsequent levels of involvement and aspirations for intellectual achievement" (1992, p.4). Upcraft and Gardner suggested that a particularly important factor for freshman students is "establishing close friends, especially during the first month of enrollment" (1989, p. 10). Thus, researchers and practitioners have emphasized the importance of a student's initial experiences on campus and suggested that these experiences might play a critical role in a student's future success.

Previous research about the transition to college has not focused on the initial college experiences of large populations, i.e., the first few weeks of college. A number of studies have focused on the transition of particular sub populations, such as minority students, first generation students, and at risk students (e.g., Choy, Horn, Nunez, &Chen, 2000; Hurtado & Carter, 1997). Other studies have focused on concerns that high school students have about the college transition (e.g., Birnie-Lefcovitch, 2000; Paul & Kelleher, 1995; Zuker, 1997). Also, research has looked at first semester experiences or first year experiences and linked them with retention to the sophomore year (e.g. Allen & Nelson, 1989; Berger, 1997; Berger & Braxton, 1998; Berger & Milem 1999; Milem & Berger, 1997). These studies focused on issues of involvement, social integration, and institutional commitment but none focused specifically on the initial transition period. Nor did these studies investigate impacts beyond the sophomore year. Other studies have looked at the relationship between adaptation to college and family relationships (e.g., Feenstra, Banyard, Rines, & Hopkins, 2001; Wintre & Sugar, 2000). Overall, what has been largely overlooked in the research is the potential importance of initial college experiences and the impact these experiences may have on long-term outcomes. Therefore, this study sought to investigate the relationship between students' initial experiences in college and students' degree completions.

Methodology

Sample

This study focused on a cohort of first time freshman students at one predominantly residential Midwest public university. The students matriculated in fall 1996. During the third week of their first semester on campus, all of the students in the cohort received a survey. Of the 3,829 freshman students, 2,554 students returned useable survey responses, creating an overall response rate of 67 percent.

Dependent variable

The dependent variable (BA) in this study was whether a student had earned a Bachelor's degree at the institution within five years of matriculation. …