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President Donald R. Eastman III

Strategic Planning Recommendations

First Year Experience

J. Carella, J. Howard, B. Kelly (chair), C. Stiles, S. Weppner

The Committee's Charge:
Reexamination of general education at the College, focusing in particular on the first-year educational experience with a view to ensuring that we provide a program that meets the intellectual and developmental needs of first-year students. This includes reviewing the Autumn Term, the content and pedagogy of the year-long core sequence, and implications of the first-year program for the rest of the general education curriculum.

According to The Futures Project, of Brown University, colleges and universities are facing a "fundamental change in the nature of competition for students.... A competition of pedagogy, with each institution trying to demonstrate its capacity to help students learn" (8). In addition, helping students more successfully navigate the transitions into college, the four years of academic work, and the move careers or graduate study has become a major focus of institutions of higher learning (National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition).

Eckerd College is well positioned to respond to this challenge. According to our many of our graduates, faculty, trustees, and outside observers including the American Academy for Liberal Education, and Phi Beta Kappa, much about our liberal arts core makes us distinctive and distinguished. Nonetheless, our general education program needs at least to remain and preferably to thrive as the central and distinctive feature of the Eckerd College experience if we are to avoid becoming one of many "pale copies of the state research universities" (Futures 10).

External Environment (Much of this information is drawn from the American Association of Colleges and Universities' report (AAC&U) Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College):

1. Increase in diversity of college student body:

A. More and more students are entering college. According to the AAC&U, "75% of high school graduates get some postsecondary education within two years of receiving their diplomas." This percentage has increased dramatically over recent decades, and indications are that this trend will continue. Clearly, college education is no longer seen as just an option. The national trend holds true for us as well; 22% of this year's freshman class are the first in their families to attend college.

B. The above increase is accompanied by increased diversity. Not only does this mean that college student bodies will comprise a dazzling array of cultural and racial backgrounds, but our classes will be filled with students possessing very different abilities, both social and intellectual. Nationally, 53% of students entering college take remedial courses. These students are the most likely to attrit. At Eckerd, the average SAT score for this year's entering class is up, but the distribution of scores is bimodal. While we continue to attract and admit students with high scores, we are seeing an increase in the number of students at the lower end who may require remediation in some areas. According to Dick Hallin, we may see more of this in years to come.

2. Concern about convenience, choice, and speed of completion:

A. Students and their parents are concerned about convenience, choice, and speed. Some students will have a complex, confused educational experience driven by expedience rather than the pursuit of knowledge.

B. Concerns for "relevance" and vocational preparation rather than the pursuit of knowledge are also increasing.

C. Our customers seek "quality course work...including...real contact with faculty" and classes that students find interesting (Futures 9).

3. Increase in transfer students and lack of a clear educational plan:
A majority of students today attend more than one institute of higher learning, which results in and is perhaps caused by the absence of a clear educational path.

Our Internal Strengths:

1. An institutional commitment to and considerable expertise in close mentoring.

A. The connection between the first year program and mentoring. Our first year students establish a strong connection with their mentors during autumn term that continues throughout the freshman year (and often beyond). The first year students and mentors see each other regularly and often in both a classroom setting and in private meetings. According to Dick Hallin, Dean of Admissions, this aspect of our general education program is hugely attractive to prospective students' families when they seek a college.

B. Committed mentors who work with students, in and out of the classroom, challenging them as individuals in their intellectual and personal development in positive ways that just wouldn't happen under a different model.

2. An excellent values based general education program that fosters civic mindedness, global awareness, self-knowledge, collaborative learning, and ethical behavior, the value of which will continue to grow as the world becomes increasingly complex, confused, and more reliant on knowledge. Indeed, we are educating our students for effective citizenship and leadership in the challenging world of the future in a way that is superior to the vocational or mass education available elsewhere.

Our Challenges: Liberal Education and The Eckerd College Mission:
Based on our reading, experiences at national conferences, discussion with colleagues, and our sense of what it means to be at Eckerd College, our committee feels most strongly that the first year experience, indeed the entire general education program must be founded on and explicitly advance the college's mission. This sounds and is obvious, but in our discussions in committee and with other faculty, we found that there is little common articulation of that mission.

More worrisome is the possibility that there are some differences in the minds of faculty and students about what this mission should be, especially with regard to the role of general education. Some see providing the most rigorous and specialized majors as the college's main purpose, and we have fielded recommendations from colleagues that call for removing the entire first year general education program to move students more quickly in to their majors. Others are concerned about the difficulties with staffing the disciplines while trying to meet obligations for participating in general education. Differing views of the value of liberal education seem to prompt more questions than answers from members of the college community. In fact, some have suggested that the phrase "liberal arts education" has at best no currency and at worst negative value for our students and their parents. While this view seems inconsistent with views at the national level -- as evidenced by the Greater Expectations report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and revitalization projects by educational institutions such as Scripps College- the fact of its existence, coupled with the college's national identity and market niche, indicates the need for Eckerd College to commit itself to clearly articulating in rhetoric and practice the exact meaning and value of a liberal education.

In January 2003, Scott Lee of the Association for Core Texts and Courses reported that general education requirements at colleges and universities typically account for about 42% of the required credits. Eckerd requires about 36%. A significant portion of that figure, represented by the four distribution courses, contributes to the achievement of a liberal education in only the slightest fashion by requiring distribution across the academic areas. In addition, students, especially those in interdisciplinary majors, are often taking distribution courses that apply to their majors. Last, there is no clear connection between this requirement and the objectives of the first year course. On paper and in practice, we miss an opportunity to provide a coherent, directed, and more meaningful general education program.

The best of all visions for the college would include some other sort of requirements instead: discipline based values courses, great books courses, service learning, etc. Successful examples are many and include our own past practices, as well as current programs at Clare College at St. Bonaventure University and Kalamazoo College.

This college is founded on the principle that one is never just or even foremost a specialist, a scientist, an economist, or an artist; one is always a member of a larger, more diverse community, and thus one has an obligation to consider the consequences of one's thoughts and deeds from perspectives other than those of one's field. Indeed, a prime goal of an Eckerd College education has and must continue to be the practical and personal limitations of career-based notions of self. We know that liberally educated individuals make better executives, scholars, and citizens. For some time now, we have known that a majority of college graduates will at some point in their professional careers find themselves employed in fields having very few relationships to their undergraduate majors. Our graduates will be better prepared for successful lives after they have learned how to learn, if they have skills, knowledge, and experiences that will facilitate career transitions.

Strategic Plan:

A. To attract and retain students most likely to prosper at and after Eckerd College, we must ensure that our first year program has as its essential values:

  • A pedagogy based on the philosophy and mission of Eckerd College that informs and accentuates the distinctive strengths and advantages of our institution, ensuring that all students become intentional learners who are "empowered through the mastery of intellectual and practical skills; informed by knowledge about the natural and social worlds and about forms of inquiry basic to these studies; and responsible for their personal actions and civic values" (AAC and U xi).
  • A developmental focus that recognizes diversity of abilities and backgrounds and takes students from their current knowledge of self, vocation or calling, community, nation, and world to an expanded and more complex understanding of the world and their place in it.
  • A comprehensive, integrated, coordinated, and intellectually rigorous experience within the framework of an intentionally coherent general education program both inside and beyond the classroom.
  • A first year program that lays the foundation for students to become global citizens, ethical leaders, contributing community members, and lifelong learners, and to gain an understanding of and the ability to articulate the value of a liberal education.
  • The examination by students of universal values and themes with an opportunity to explore how individual disciplines approach these issues within the context of a liberal education.
  • The new students' first relationship with their faculty mentors is in the context of an academic program and includes regular and frequent contact.

B. A strategic plan for the first year program that evidences these values would:

1. Make the Eckerd College first year experience a "famous for." The program should be a high-profile, high-quality, academically based, intellectually important introduction to the Eckerd College vision of a liberally educated scholar and global citizen. The program would be housed in a collegium named for a key benefactor of the college: for example, The Smith Collegium of Liberal Education.

2. Create new faculty lines to limit enrollment to 15 students in sections of the first year course and in as many 100-level courses as is practicable.

3. Encourage faculty from diverse disciplines to participate in all aspects of the general education program by providing support, incentives, rewards, and faculty development opportunities. Of special importance is providing extensive orientation for new faculty during their first year at Eckerd College. Faculty development opportunities might include course release time for "shadowing" faculty already teaching in the first year or capstone courses.

4. Develop an administrative hierarchy that integrates and links all aspects of the general education program. This would include an associate dean and two faculty directors, one to lead the first year program and one in charge of the capstone course. The 1st Year Experience Coordinator would head a committee of representatives from Student Affairs, CALA, The Center for Spiritual Life, Institutional Research, and other relevant service centers to help articulate co-curricular activities throughout the year that share themes and programming with the academic component of the first year experience.

5. Ensure that a first year sequence of courses includes self-discovery, community building and service learning activities. This would include an Autumn Term project taught by a full-time faculty member who would serve as the students' first year mentor. A two semester sequence of courses would follow, with the students and professors continuing to work together. Assessment tools could provide students with matches between their interests and abilities in the methods of inquiry particular to the several academic areas. "First year at Eckerd students," internationals and transfers, should be blended in with the freshmen.

  • One semester of the course would retain a common syllabus based on core texts, small group discussions, and plenaries. Practical application of ideas would prompt active engagement with issues, values, and themes relevant to the 21st century. This intellectually challenging, community-building course would help students develop critical thinking, self-authorship, and discover meaning, purpose, and life goals.
  • A Winter Term should be required for all first year students. Special first-year Winter Term projects offer opportunities for international travel, service learning, and or self-development. Students and mentors would not necessarily work together on these projects.
  • Another segment of the first year course would feature an encounter with the epistemologies and creative methods characteristic of our four academic areas (Natural Sciences, Behavioral Sciences, Creative Arts, and Humanities. In addition to introducing students to the corner stones of the liberal arts, the course would explore and demonstrate the interdisciplinary approach to learning and problem solving. This course would share core texts and a common theme as the axis of study, but would allow professors to supplement readings with activities, texts, and perspectives from their academic fields. We recommend that consideration be given to scheduling this course during a seven-week module.

6. Broaden the institutional support for students in transition:

  • Expand mentoring services to include peer and alumni mentors.
  • Institute an Academic Support Center charged with identifying the learning resources students, especially those in the first year, need to succeed. This center would coordinate the assignment of peer and alumni mentors and delivery of tutoring services and identify and obtain vendors of remediative and study skills courses.
  • Expand the Writing Excellence Program resources to provide writing mentors and to facilitate staffing of composition courses.

7. Appoint a committee to examine the coherence of all parts of the general education requirements.

To remain competitive and best suited to our students' needs, Eckerd College's general education program must intentionally and coherently anticipate and respond to national trends in diversity and increasing competition from not only small liberal arts colleges, but also state research institutions. As outlined in the AAC&U report, questions about providing a quality liberal education are at the forefront of strategic planning at small liberal arts colleges like ourself and at large state systems. In sum, failure to remain in the vanguard that delivers liberal arts programs founded on student learning will cost us our key distinctive quality.