Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Working Paper Series

Freshman Learning Communities, College Performance, and Retention

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Working Paper Series

Freshman Learning Communities, College Performance, and Retention

Article excerpt

Working Paper 2005-22 September 2005

Abstract: This paper applies a standard treatment effects model to determine that participation in Freshman Learning Communities (FLCs) improves academic performance and retention. Not controlling for individual self-selection into FLC participation leads one to incorrectly conclude that the impact is the same across race and gender groups. Accurately assessing the impact of any educational program is essential in determining what resources institutions should devote to it.

JEL classification: I21

Key words: freshman learning community, treatment effects

I. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to accurately and quantitatively evaluate the success of a Freshman Learning Community (FLC) program in achieving goals of retention and performance at a largely nonresidential, urban campus in the U.S. The FLC program is, at its most general, a mechanism by which college freshmen can develop a small community of peers who have an area of common interest. The communities are focused around such topics as the environment, communication, and leadership. The students take the same courses during their first semester and participate in some extra-curricular activities as a group. Psychological theories suggest that involving a student in a small community early in his or her academic career will improve the student's performance and increase the likelihood of retention for that student through developing confidence and facilitating social integration (for example, see Bean and Eaton 2001-2002 and Pascarella and Terenzini 1991). The bulk of assessments directed at FLCs or, more generally, First-year Experiences, are qualitative in nature; they rely primarily on surveys of students and instructors associated with the experiences. (1) The evidence along these lines is that students perceive their First-year Experience very positively (Darrington and Bacon 1999; Tinto, et al. 1994).

The goal here is to determine whether these qualitative experiences translate into tangible, quantitative outcomes. Accurate assessment of the impact of a program like FLCs is important since such programs typically demand considerable resources from the institutions in which they are active. Assessment of a program in which students themselves choose to participate is more complicated than merely comparing mean outcomes of performance or perception among those who participated and those who did not. If there is a possibility that a student's choice to participate is correlated with the outcome measure or biases their perception, evaluation of the impact of the program based on raw mean comparisons will be inaccurate. This potential problem of "self-selection" contaminating outcome measures has been discussed but not corrected for in the literature before now (see MacGregor 1991).

This study combines four years of FLC experience at Georgia State University, located in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. The university has approximately 28,000 students and its infra-structure is spread over 5 city blocks in one direction and 3 city blocks in another. There is one dormitory complex with space for 2,000 students. The large size of the campus, the large size of the student body, and the absence, for the majority of students, of the natural community-forming mechanism of dormitory living is an environment in which the FLC concept is expected to provide its greatest benefit. This environment is also one in which the differences in FLC and non-FLC students, in terms of "community" participation and identification, is expected to be substantial.

II. The FLC Program

A. Academic Structure

The structure of the FLC being evaluated here has components that are similar across other campuses in the U.S. (for example, see Soldner et al. 1999). The main components of the FLC program on this campus are:

* First semester only program. …

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