on the path to keeping kids in college, Northeastern University has so far met with considerable success — and encountered a few big surprises. Foundation Year, an NU pilot program during the 2009-2010 academic year, offers new graduates of the Boston Public Schools a highly structured first year of college in order to improve their dismal college graduation rates. Of the inaugural group of 44 Boston students, all but two had stuck with the program as of spring break, says Christopher Hopey, the dean for the College of Professional Studies. Next year, Hopey says, Foundation Year will double its enrollment and address the two big challenges faculty encountered this year: weaker-than-expected writing skills and higher-than-expected demand for social services.
Pop culture often paints the first year of college as a nine-month party, but the year is a struggle for many students. After 12 years of ringing bells, study halls, and 7:30 a.m. roll calls, they’re suddenly faced with classes that meet only twice a week and professors who offer little structure or guidance. For students lacking strong family support and financial resources, the transition becomes all the more challenging.
A study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University showed that of the Boston Public School graduates who enroll in college, just 35 percent graduate within seven years. “The college socialization process is very complex,” says Hopey, who says the idea for Foundation Year grew out of his experience as an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. The first year can be a no-man’s land: Colleges assume high schools will prepare kids for its rigors, while high schools imagine the university will take time to help students acculturate. Students who also grapple with financial worries and complicated home lives “end up going to college, but not making it,” says Hopey.
Foundation Year combines elements of both high school and college. Students study at the Northeastern campus, but they are in class or experiential learning projects for eight hours a day. They have five full-time professors, plus an advisor, dedicated to them, meaning that each student is well-known to the staff. (So it’s harder for them to sleep through lectures without anyone noticing.)
In addition to structure, Foundation Year focuses on core academic skills and offers credit for classes that would elsewhere be considered remedial. “At community colleges, you get tracked into remedial classes and don’t get credit [toward a degree],” says Hopey. “You don’t get credit, you get discouraged, and you drop out. We want them to walk out in 12 months with remedial issues solved, credits earned, and goals set.”
Foundation Year students are admitted into an associate’s degree program within the College of Professional Studies. Upon completing the year, they can continue on toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree at the College of Professional Studies, transfer within Northeastern, or transfer credits to other schools. Tuition this year was $15,180, which most students pay for with a combination of federal grants and Northeastern’s need-based financial aid. The program costs Northeastern approximately $1.5 million a year, says Hopey. More than 250 BPS students have already applied for about 80 slots in next year’s class.
As he reflects on the first year, Hopey is pleased with the high student retention and says the faculty is reconfiguring itself to address the weak writing skills. “We had to pile our resources into writing,” he says. Although all Foundation Year students are MCAS-passing, high-school graduates, “Student writing skills just weren’t there.”
The more daunting challenge, though, was the home life of Foundation Year students, who are chosen through a selective admissions process. “We underestimated the external needs of these students,” says Hopey. As students struggled with issues like homelessness and hunger, he says the faculty often stepped in to help, playing far more of an in loco parentis role than their colleagues in traditional college settings. “It’s not what universities usually do,” he says. “It makes us feel proud of what we’re doing. These kids would not get the support they need elsewhere.”