Is What Glitters Really Gold? A Quasi-Experimental Study of First-Year Seminars and College Student Success

First-year seminars are frequently designed to help students adjust to and succeed in college. Although considerable literature has explored this topic, many previous studies may have notable problems with self-selection, since students who choose to participate are likely more motivated academically than those who do not. Therefore, this study used quasi-experimental analyses within a large, longitudinal, multi-institutional dataset to explore the link between seminar participation and several student success outcomes. Overall, the use of propensity score analyses substantially alters the results, such that first-year seminars are positively associated with first-year college satisfaction, but they have no effect on fourth-year satisfaction, college grades, retention, or four-year graduation within the full sample. This lack of impact is largely consistent regardless of whether the seminar is designed to engage students in academic inquiry or to promote orientation and academic success. Additional analyses observed some differential effects of first-year seminars by race/ethnicity, ACT score, and sex; the most consistent finding is that first-year seminars appear to promote the college grades and college satisfaction of Black students. Implications for future research and practice are discussed.

First-year seminars have become pervasive on college campuses. According to a recent survey of members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 52% of institutions require that students take a first-year academic seminar, and 30% have optional seminars that students can choose to take (Hart Research Associates 2016). This widespread adoption is based on the assumption that these seminars constitute a “high-impact practice” that leads to student growth and/or retention (Kuh 2008). However, first-year seminars actually include a diverse array of offerings that vary substantially in form, function, and intensity (e.g., Barefoot 1992; Center and for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 2013). Many scholars delineate among six different types of seminars, but most frequently take at least one of the following two forms: (1) orientation and academic success seminars that provide an extended orientation to campus resources available to enhance students’ success in college, instruction in basic study skills, and/or a discussion of strategies to facilitate students’ transition to college; and (2) academic inquiry-based seminars that ask students to practice higher-order thinking in small-group courses, which may be focused either on a single academic theme or a variety of academic topics based on the interests of students or faculty (Hunter and Linder 2005; Center and for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 2013). Prevailing frameworks often further distinguish between the academic inquiry-based seminars to delineate whether they explore one topic versus multiple topics, while noting the similarities in their academic focus. These general categories constitute the vast majority of seminars; the remaining types (i.e., professional, discipline-based, and basic skills) comprise less than seven percent combined (Hunter and Linder 2005). Furthermore, a substantial proportion of first-year seminars exhibit characteristics of multiple types, such as a seminar that provides information about campus resources and study skills while also exploring several academic topics of interest (Barefoot 1992; Center and for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 2013).

Many institutions invest heavily in first-year seminars in an effort to facilitate college adjustment and student success. Approximately half of four-year institutions with seminars have class sizes that are fewer than 20 students (Center and for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 2013), which means a large university that required first-year seminar attendance would need to recruit and pay instructors to teach hundreds of different course sections. Given the substantial investment of time and resources both for the institution and for students (who are devoting energy to this course rather than other endeavors), the stakes for ensuring the efficacy of these seminars are high.

Although first-year seminars are often explicitly designed to promote academic achievement and retention, the extent and conditions under which they succeed in this goal are surprisingly unclear. As discussed below, the design of previous studies often prevents strong causal conclusions from being drawn. The present paper provides an important step in this direction by conducting a quasi-experimental study with data from dozens of colleges and universities to examine the impact of first-year seminars on college satisfaction, grades, retention, and four-year graduation. This study also examines whether the results vary as a function of the type of seminar or student characteristics.

Culver, K. & Bowman, N. Is What Glitters Really Gold? A Quasi-Experimental Study of First-Year Seminars and College Student Success. 61 2 167 - 196. 10.1007/s11162-019-09558-8.