New initiative requires immediate academic help for at-risk freshmen

A new program launching this fall will assure immediate academic intervention for first-year students who didn't automatically qualify for admission, a group of about 200 undergraduates who often need extra support in their crucial first months on campus.

Participation in Smart Start will be required for Iowa State freshmen admitted despite a Regents Admissions Index (RAI) score less than the 245 that guarantees acceptance to any of Iowa's three state Board of Regents universities. Typically, that cohort is about 3-5% of each entering Iowa State class, roughly 200-250 students, said Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy. 

"Research shows they're the students at greatest risk for attrition," Caffrey said.

The average one-year retention rate for students with RAI scores between 233 and 244 has been 16% lower than for all students who enrolled directly from high school, 71% compared to 87%. Three-year retention was 22% lower (just 56%), and six-year graduation rates are 50%, compared to 73% for all direct-from-high-school students. The statistics cover from 2009, when RAI was first used, through 2016.

Students who weren't automatically admitted are more likely to struggle immediately. The average first-year GPA for students whose RAI would have qualified them for Smart Start is 2.11, compared to an overall first-year average of 2.87. That's why early intervention is key.

"The best way to help somebody get out of an academic hole is to help them not dig the hole in the first place," Caffrey said.

How it works

The initial required contact will come within the first three weeks of the fall semester, a small-group meeting with three or four other Smart Start participants and Yakira Sanders, the half-time graduate assistant hired to run the program, said Katie Whipple, director of the Academic Success Center, which will oversee Smart Start.

It's important to establish a connection early, just as students are adjusting from high school to college. The small-group meetings will be interactive, giving students a chance to discuss and reflect on the transition.

"They will be coming to see someone face-to-face within the first three weeks, which I think can be powerful," Whipple said. Typically, she said, "They may not need to see their adviser until October or November."

Attendance at one of the center's one-hour workshops also is required in the fall semester, as is a one-on-one meeting with Sanders strategically timed around midterms. Whipple said first-year students sometimes don't realize they're falling behind until they receive a midterm report, making it an ideal time to shepherd students toward assistance.

"They're not going to engage until they feel that reality," Whipple said.

Students who earn at least a 2.33 GPA in the fall will have no further obligations under the program. Caffrey said research shows a significant jump in persistence for students with a 2.33 or better in their first semester.

"That wasn't an arbitrary decision. We definitely look at the data to inform that," Whipple said.

Students who fail to hit the 2.33 benchmark remain in Smart Start a second semester. In the spring, two one-on-one meetings with Sanders are required, as is enrollment in Psychology 131, a one-credit academic skills development course. They're also eligible for free tutoring for one of their courses and potentially more, if funding is available. Along with regular academic warning and probation rules, additional measures might be required for Smart Start students who receive less than a 2.0 in their first semester.

Because participation is a condition of admittance, students who don't comply with the Smart Start requirements won't be able to register for their next semester's classes. 

Hopeful it's helpful

Whipple and Caffrey said they're optimistic about what a dash of guaranteed support will mean for Smart Start students.

The initiative is limited to students who aren't affiliated with other sources of academic structure, so it doesn't include student-athletes or, for example, Multicultural Vision Program participants or recipients of Hixson Opportunity Awards. Neither is it a replacement for the former summer trial program canceled in 2018, Caffrey said. Summer trial students had lower RAI scores than the Smart Start cohort. Those who earned acceptable grades in six credits of summer coursework were admitted for the fall, but the chance to show college readiness didn't come with any added assistance. 

Smart Start's aim is to proactively help students otherwise on their own as they begin their college journey.

"Since we haven't ever done anything to reach out to this population, I'm hoping we can move the needle at least a little bit. And I'm really hoping we can move it a lot," Caffrey said.

A committee first began exploring options in 2017, wrestling with how to wring the most from a relatively small budget, a little more than $40,000 per year.

"We spent a lot of time talking about what this program will entail," Caffrey said.

The broad strokes have been in place since spring 2018, which allowed the program to be touted in recruiting materials for the first-year class arriving this fall. The program is funded for at least two years -- probably three, Caffrey said -- allowing time to see what works and make small adjustments as needed. For instance, enrollees were invited to touch base at the Academic Success Center during orientation, an offer 39 of the 211 participants (as of July 11) took them up on. Whipple said they will study whether that summer contact makes a difference.

Though it will take more than a year to gauge the results of Smart Start, in terms of academic performance and retention, Whipple said she's eager to see it in action.

"I think there's a feeling of excitement and hope," she said.