Transition to college is subject of UC study

Like moving or taking a new job, the transition to college is a major change, and the University of California is conducting an in-depth study of first-year college students to learn more about the challenges and rewards that accompany the milestone.

UC Santa Cruz team conducts in-depth study of first-year students
"The university has put a lot of energy into getting more students prepared for college. We want to invest not just in getting students here but in making sure they get through," said project director Margarita Azmitia, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Azmitia, a developmental psychologist who specializes in educational transitions, is conducting the nine-month study of about 200 first-year students. The results will help shape university policies and programs aimed at retention and academic success.

Participating students fill out a questionnaire and are interviewed individually each quarter in an effort to assess whether and how students draw on their family, friends, and the university for emotional support and academic help during their first year of college. Although the participants are all enrolled at UCSC, the results are intended for use throughout the UC system. Students receive $15 for each interview session. The study began last fall; results will be published as a policy brief due October 1.

A total of 140 students come from groups that are typically underrepresented at the University of California (African American, Latino/Chicano, Filipino, Native American, and low-income white students who are the first in their family to go to college). The remaining 60 students are middle-class whites who are not the first in their family to attend college and Asian Americans of Japanese or Chinese descent.

Researchers are also considering the role of academics, student background, and mental health in the first-year college experience. Familial expectations and values about college-going are measured, as well as how students draw upon their friends from home and their friends from college. Individual factors such as the students' ethnicity, gender, and academic history are also weighed.

"We try to look at everything--their self-esteem and feelings of competence, how engaged they are with the university, how their classes are going, whether they have made friends and are participating in extracurricular activities, and if they're having roommate problems," said Azmitia.

By meeting with students three times during the academic year, researchers are able to assess the ups and downs of the first-year college experience, said Azmitia. Typically, first-year college students report high levels of satisfaction in the fall, more challenges during the winter, and a sense of accomplishment in the spring.

So far, Azmitia reports that only about 15 percent of participating students are struggling academically and that homesickness is a bigger problem than many expected to encounter. "They're really missing their families," said Azmitia. "A lot of them want cell phones so they can call home more often."

At the policy level, Azmitia says the preliminary data suggest that perhaps the university needs to bolster outreach to students during winter months. "Students receive a big welcome when they arrive in the fall, and some students plug into that right away," she said. "But if students are shy or were too busy with their classes, by winter quarter some are struggling to find ways to connect and get involved. The majority are doing fine, but the more vulnerable students are floundering."

Azmitia and the research team decided to diverge slightly from the standard scientific practice that requires that researchers provide no information to their participants for the duration of the study. Instead, they provide information about university services and supports to students in need because they want to help the students adjust and decide to stay in college.

"College is like life, you get out of it what you put into it. But these are 17- and 18-year-olds," said Azmitia. "They don't know how to access all the resources around them yet. That's part of what they're learning in college."

Curious to see what happens over the long haul, Azmitia hopes to secure outside grant support to follow this group of students throughout their college years. For now, though, she is immersed in the details of dorm life, classes, grades, and social activities.

"How the transition to the first year of college goes influences the students' pathway through college," she said. "It's important for the university to know as much as possible about that first year."

Azmitia received $50,000 in funding from the UC All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity (UC/ACCORD), which harnesses the research expertise of the university to identify strategies that will increase college preparation, access, and retention. She also received $10,000 from UCSC's Academic Senate Committee on Research, and $6,000 from the Social Sciences Division.

Working with Azmitia are postdoctoral and doctoral students Holli Tonyan, Olaf Reis, Kim Radmacher, Joel Gills, and Kate McLean, who helped design and implement the study, as well as 15 undergraduate researchers.