Higher Learning Commission

Establishing a First Year Experience Program

Prairie State College

Overview of the Quality Initiative

Prairie State College (PSC) plans to implement a Quality Initiative Project (QIP) that will improve support for new students by establishing a First Year Experience (FYE) Program. A new centralized office will be dedicated to helping new students get off to a good start, and its director will oversee key services that will improve the level of support we can offer our students. By providing these services, we hope to increase students’ success and persistence, as measured by student retention.

Developing a first-year program for entering students is hardly a novel ideal. Many respected researchers have examined the impact of first-year programs in higher education. Tinto (2012) gets to the heart of the matter saying,

Nothing is more important to student retention than academic support, especially during the critical first year of college, when student retention is still very responsive to institutional intervention....Indeed, the first semester and the first weeks of that semester...are critically important.

Strengthening institutional support for first-year students will mean improving our current efforts but also developing and piloting new strategies to help students, assessing the outcomes of those strategies, and then improving the interventions. Our decision-making process will be grounded in best practices for first-year experience programs. It will involve data-driven decision-making and use feedback loops to ensure continuous quality improvement. We will also try to identify student needs we are not currently meeting effectively.

We will be taking advantage of the insights that have emerged from the recent scholarship in higher education, especially from research focusing on issues related to the first-year experience and student success and retention. The work of the following scholars will guide our efforts: Robbins et al in Habley, 2012; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt, 2005; Barefoot, 2000. To develop an excellent first-year program, these researchers suggest we do the following:

  • Create programming that welcomes and affirms newcomers;
  • Provide excellent developmental courses for students who are not college ready;
  • Identify students who are having difficulty and intervene early to help;
  • Take advantage of existing resources and work to improve them;
  • Collaborate across divisions to create new resources;
  • Conduct systematic analysis of learning outcomes and then make improvements;
  • Use data to provide feedback and improve the assessment process;
  • Maintain advising networks that respond to students’ academic and personal needs;
  • Help students understand and navigate institutional policies and procedures;
  • Take advantage of the insights and best practices of faculty, staff members, and administrators who are perceived by students as accessible and supportive.

Evolution of the Project

The origins for this project date back to 2010 when Kingsborough Community College (KCC) invited Prairie State to participate in a FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) grant. The grant allowed KCC to work with us to design an ambitious improvement project called the “Jigsaw Project” because it had so many pieces that needed to fit together. The project relied on collaboration and data-driven decision-making to improve the experience of entering students by changing college processes.

The Project had two major objectives. The first objective focused on improving freshman services prior to the first day of class by analyzing the experience of students registering and applying for financial aid for the first time. By mapping the complexities of students’ path to registration, we identified ten priorities to be tackled by the College. Diverse committees were formed to discuss these issues and formulate recommendations for improvement. Over thirty recommendations were brought forward by the committees. The President’s Cabinet then worked with faculty and staff to implement changes to our processes, procedures, and communications that would improve the experience of new students.

The second Project objective was to evaluate and modify the structure of placement testing and developmental education. Again, committees were formed to research those issues and make recommendations. Faculty in English and Math were asked to evaluate the developmental courses in their disciplines and pilot changes that would allow students to complete their developmental work more quickly and successfully. This process is flourishing and has led to important innovations in English 099, our highest level developmental course in English and the gateway course for 70% of our entering students.

The English Department is currently piloting several different configurations of English 099 to determine which is most successful in helping students master the learning outcomes for college writing. Four configurations are being piloted, including:

  • A 6-hour version (099A) combining English and Reading for students who test into both;
  • A stand-alone 3-hour version (099B) for students who need writing but not reading.
  • English 099B paired with a general education course as a learning community (LC).
  • An accelerated LC where ten 099B students are co-enrolled in English 101 along with fourteen 101 students. Successful 099B/101 LC students then qualify for English 102.

 The English Department has conducted ongoing assessment to determine which configurations produce the best learning outcomes and retention. It is clear that our accelerated English 101/099B has been a successful option for students with strong reading scores. A pattern of piloting, assessing, and improving based on assessment is one of the great successes that has grown out of the Jigsaw Project.

Several other significant improvements have been made as a result of the Jigsaw Project, and two of them will be carried forward in our quality initiative. We identified the need for a more robust, and possibly mandatory, New Student Orientation. In response, we created an online orientation to augment our face-to-face orientation. We also purchased Retention Alert, a system that helps us identify at-risk students early in the semester so we can intervene quickly.

Although we have been offering services and programs to support new students for many years, our efforts have been decentralized. Up until fall 2014, no one has been given ownership of the entire first-year initiative, but this will change with our new FYE program.

The same is true of our early alert initiative. A small committee was charged with implementing the Retention Alert pilot, and now this effort needs to transition to regular staff. We have also been working to re-design our Student Success course as our new First Year Seminar. This course does not yet reach the number of students needed to have an impact, but we are hoping to make it required for students entering from high school.

We believe we can better serve our new students and improve student success if we create a dedicated office and launch a comprehensive First Year Experience Program. The creation of this new program will unify several Jigsaw initiatives under one roof. It will also speed the implementation of institutional improvements we have identified as important to our students’ success and well-being.

Launching Our First Year Experience Program

We plan to establish the structure for our First Year Experience Program over the next four semesters, beginning in fall 2014. This fall we have developed a timeline and proposed milestones. We will also appoint a First Year Taskforce to guide us in setting priorities and implementing the most high impact components of the program.

Dr. Loretta Kucharczyk will serve as Director of the First Year Experience. She will draw upon her 27 years of experience in higher education, including 10 years at Prairie State as an

Intentional Advisor, to take the lead in creating our program. Two additional staff members have been assigned to the FYE office–Lee Helbert, who will serve as Manager, First Year Experience, and Darcelle Dieudonne, Retention Coordinator/Health Promotions.

Although the details of our FYE program will be defined over the next several semesters, we expect our program to address, but not be limited to, five basic goals:

  • Increasing the number of students participating in New Student Orientation.
  • Modifying delivery of advising services.
  • Using the early alert system to identify students who need help.
  • Helping students develop financial aid literacy.
  • Assisting students in navigating the college experience from admission through completion.

The FYE office will work with faculty, administrators and staff to implement these initiatives and determine what needs to be done to move forward with our plans.

Sufficiency of the Initiative’s Scope and Significance

Who We Serve

Prairie State College is a minority serving Institution faced with the challenge of providing high-quality educational opportunities to underrepresented, underprepared, and low-income students in Chicago’s south suburbs. In fall 2013, 57% of our students were African-American, and an additional 11% were Hispanic. Our student body is geographically, socio-economically, and ethnically diverse.

Six of the eight public high schools in our district are identified as performing below state and national standards, particularly in math, science, and reading. An analysis of the May 2012 high school graduates who attended PSC the following fall or spring shows that over 70% placed into developmental English and over 90% into developmental math. We have also seen an increase in the number of students who are 22 and younger, with just over 50% of our students falling into this age group in fall 2013.

The unemployment rate in the counties we serve, Will and Cook, is higher than both the U.S. and Illinois unemployment rates (US Department of Labor, May 2014). In 2008-2013, 75% of our students qualified for Pell grants. About 23% are also first-generation college students.

Commitment to Student Success

In spring of 2013, Prairie State developed a Strategic Plan for 2013-2017. Representatives of all college constituencies–executive officers, administrators, managers, faculty, and support staff–spent four mornings off campus discussing the College’s priorities and what actions needed to be taken to reach our goals. Persistence and completion were highlighted as key goals. The Planning and Quality Improvement Committee reviewed the ideas generated at the workshop, consolidated them, and categorized them into three main goals and 23 strategies. The 2013-17 Strategic Plan was launched in August 2013.

Student success is the central, uniting theme of Prairie State’s 2013-17 Strategic Plan. Our First Year Experience initiative grew out of our strategic plan and is tied to the first goal and three supporting strategies:

Goal 1. Provide access to quality education and support services to help students
achieve their education and career goals.

  • Evaluate the first-year student experience, including the developmental education program, and implement changes to increase persistence and completion.
  • Create additional student-centered support programs to improve retention and completion.
  • Develop new ways to engage and communicate with students.

These goals and strategies will drive our efforts to help students become more successful.

Retention and Completion

We are well aware that student retention is a major and ongoing problem at the College. Despite an increased emphasis on retention and completion, Prairie State has not made progress improving these numbers. In fact, the fall-to-fall retention rate for full-time and part-time degree-seeking students has decreased since 2009, as illustrated below:

prairie state college

 At Prairie State College, fewer than 14% of degree-seeking students graduate within three years of enrollment. Statistics from the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) show that graduation rates for all first-time, full-time students who entered the school from 2003-2009 averaged 14.3% in three years (150% of the expected completion time) and 17.9% in four years (200%).

Illinois Community College Board Statistics
  Graduating in 150% of Time Graduating in 200% of Time
Semester of Entrance PSC Illinois PSC Illinois
Fall 2004 14.7% 20.6% 16.3% 25.0%
Fall 2005 15.2% 20.6% 18.7% 24.6%
Fall 2006 13.4% 19.6% 16.3% 23.5%
Fall 2007 14.1% 19.4% 18.8% 23.7%
Fall 2008 11.2% 20.1% 16.4% 25.0%
Fall 2009 11.9% 20.6%    
These figures are substantially lower than those for the state as a whole, and we hope that services and support offered through our new FYE program will help improve them.

Project Significance and Relevance

We recognize that initiatives to increase our retention and completion rates are critical. Even a small increase in retention and subsequent graduation would have a huge impact on the College. Of course, there is no easy fix. Complicating the issue is the fact that the problems our students face are not strictly academic. Many barriers to their academic success result from complications in their everyday lives. These include financial problems, lack of transportation, low self-efficacy or motivation, problems getting reliable child care, domestic violence, mental health issues, and others too numerous to mention.

The First Year Experience Program will provide additional support to our new students, many of whom have difficulties navigating college admission, registration, and financial aid. And once those hurdles are overcome, they must still face challenges taking college courses, for which many are poorly prepared. We plan to help students address the cognitive and non-cognitive barriers they encounter and to motivate more of them to persist past the first semester and eventually graduate.

The FYE program will impact a significant number of students. Typically, new students make up about 24% of our fall enrollment–about 1200 students in fall 2013. The majority are part-time students, and about 12% (about 600 in fall 2013) are first-time, full-time students. We will offer support to all first-year students, but specific subgroups will be targeted for more intensive help. One of our initial challenges will be determining the scope of activities and the number of students who can realistically be served.

The First Year Experience Program is both relevant and significant to Prairie State College. It is directly tied to our strategic plan and addresses the specific needs of our student population.

Our FYE initiative has the potential to increase student success and persistence, which will help our students accomplish the goals that are central to Prairie State’s mission:

Prairie State College fosters collaborative relationships that empower students to achieve their education and career goals. The College embraces its diversity, nurtures life-long learning, and supports community and economic development.

We recognize that, by itself, this initiative may not solve our problem with retention and completion, but it is an important piece of the puzzle that will help us better serve new students. We know that most of our students come to us from low income households and under-performing schools. Many are also first-generation students with little access the kind of coaching on college “know how” that helps middle class students navigate college. Thus, it is up to us to offer our students the tools and support they need to get off to a good start and achieve their dreams. We expect that our new First Year Experience Program will help us do just that.

Clarity of the Initiative’s Purpose

The purpose of our quality initiative is to improve and expand our services to new students and help them achieve their educational goals. We plan to accomplish these goals through our new First Year Experience (FYE) Program. By assigning staff to this initiative and creating a centralized office with responsibility for coordinating key components, we expect to positively impact student retention.

The overarching goal of FYE is to improve the success of first-time PSC students, and we believe we can accomplish that by focusing on specific program goals, including the following:

  • Increasing the number of students participating in New Student Orientation;
  • Modifying delivery of advising services to be more proactive and personalized;
  • Using Retention Alert to connect first-year students with resources to address cognitive and non-cognitive barriers that negatively impact their persistence;
  • Improving the financial literacy of new students and targeting new students early in the enrollment process to increase the number who apply early for financial aid; and
  • Assisting new students in navigating the college experience, discerning and articulating their educational goals, and identifying a pathway for achieving their goals.

The project timeline (see page 13) describes tangible tasks and milestones to be accomplished each semester. We will measure the progress of the project by determining whether these tasks have been accomplished on the timeline we have developed. In addition, we will track the number of students served–and in what capacity–by the FYE program. We will also establish baseline data on student retention so we can track improvements after this cohort has benefited from FYE initiatives. The development of assessment projects is built into the project timeline. Faculty and staff will define student learning outcomes and conduct assessments to determine if program activities, like orientation, are having the desired impact.

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

PSC’s Quality Initiative Project has the support and commitment of the senior leadership, including the President and the Vice Presidents of both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. The Vice Presidents have chosen an outstanding person to lead the FYE office and have assigned two staff members from other departments. Dr. Loretta Kucharczyk has accepted the position of Director of First Year Experience. She has 27 years of experience in higher education, more than half of it with community college students. A major portion of her work has focused on advising, but she was also responsible for creating our Intentional Advising Program (under our Title III Grant) and has significant experience with program development, implementation, and evaluation. She will supervise the program staff and work with the FYE Taskforce to design and launch program activities.

Lee Helbert will serve as the Manager of the FYE Program. She brings 17 years of experience in higher education to the position along with an academic specialization in developmental education. Her past responsibilities have included serving as Director of Institutional Research and Director of the Student Success Center (tutoring). She has also run our testing center and worked as an Intentional Advisor for English 099. As an adjunct English professor, she is acutely aware of the challenges our students face both in the classroom and beyond. As FYE Manager, Ms. Helbert will not only provide advising services, but also take the lead in gathering and analyzing data and in developing and implementing assessment activities.

Darcelle Dieudonne, Retention Coordinator/Health Promotions, will also join the FYE staff. She was a member of the taskforce that piloted our Retention Alert software, and she now serves as a case worker for this initiative. She has experience in academic advising and promoting healthy lifestyles and will continue in those roles with FYE. The assignment of these valuable employees to this effort, especially at a time of widespread budget cuts, demonstrates our strong commitment to the success of the FYE program.

Prairie State has also supported this project by reallocating prime office space on the first floor of the main building to the FYE staff. We purchased the Retention Alert software in FY 2013 and committed to annual contract renewals. Our technology department has agreed to provide internal support. A professionally produced on-line orientation was outsourced in 2013, and should be ready to launch soon. Both resources support the goals of this program.

The First Year Experience Taskforce will help shape program priorities and ensure that FYE staff are drawing on the expertise of faculty and staff who work with first-year students. The taskforce will also help FYE staff address challenges as they arise. Representatives from key departments, including financial aid, advising, tutoring, institutional research, and testing, will be invited to join the taskforce, along with the faculty who are developing our new First Year Seminar. Faculty involved in learning communities and Retention Alert may also join this group. In addition, the Vice Presidents of both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs will serve on the taskforce. They have the authority to make decisions and will work with the President’s Cabinet to solve any problems.

In addition to serving on the taskforce, faculty will play a key role because they are the first-line players for our Retention Alert system. They identify students who are exhibiting at-risk behaviors, such as missing classes or earning unsatisfactory grades, and open cases on them through the software. Advisors promptly contact these students to offer appropriate support to help resolve both cognitive and non-cognitive issues. Over twenty full-time and adjunct faculty in developmental English and Math have been trained on the software and started using it. More faculty will be involved as we expand use of this software beyond our developmental courses. In addition, twenty advisors and student support specialists in TRiO, STEM, Athletics, Veterans Services, Male Success Initiative, and Intentional Advising are trained as caseworkers.

Since the College is unlikely to receive additional funding to launch the FYE, we are reallocating human and financial resources to implement this program. The quality initiative will be integrated into daily college operations and will rely heavily on support from such departments as Public Relations/Marketing, Information Technology, and Advising, to accomplish its goals. The FYE program staff will work closely with the College’s Financial Aid office to improve the financial aid literacy of new students. Developing a First Year Experience Program and centralizing under one umbrella all the efforts that support new students is the logical next step for building a better support network for our students.

Appropriateness of the Timeline for the Initiative

Project Timeline and Milestones

The FYE Program will be rolled out over four semesters. Fall of 2014 will be primarily dedicated to planning. PSC has selected space to house the program staff and moved the staff into that space. The following timeline outlines major project activities and identifies the milestones to be accomplished each semester.

Fall 2014


  • Re-assign staff and develop job descriptions for FYE staff members
  • Establish physical office(s)
  • Identify members and establish FYE Advisory Taskforce
  • Continue to pilot Retention Alert to a selected population of developmental students
  • Introduce on-line orientation
  • Identify students (cohorts) to be served by various FYE activities
  • Research FYE best practices
  • Develop a preliminary Program Plan, including components, timeline, and budgets for the next three semesters
  • Advise students in ENG 099A
  • Gather necessary baseline data on student success, retention, etc.


Staff assigned and office space established
Initial FYE program plan developed
Retention Alert pilot completed

Spring 2015

  • Implement orientation (in-person and online)
  • Implement FYE advising component
  • Serve initial FYE student cohort(s) per fall 2014 plan
  • Continue Retention Alert and refine for maximum impact
  • Pilot Campus ToolKit in ENG 098
  • Hold FYE Advisory Taskforce meetings to garner input on FYE components and timeline
  • Adjust FYE components, timeline and budget
  • Define student learning outcomes and design assessments for FYE
  • Continue to gather necessary data
  • Develop transition plan for students entering their second year


Online and in-person orientations up and running
FYE Taskforce in operation
Advising component implemented

Spring/Summer 2015


  • Evaluate program and plan changes
  • Complete preparations to implement additional components in fall 2015

Fall 2015


  • Implement additional FYE components and serve FYE students
  • Implement financial aid literacy component
  • Implement FYE assessments
  • Decide whether to move forward with Campus ToolKit
  • Continue FYE Advisory Taskforce meetings to garner input on FYE components, timeline, and how to resolve challenges
  • Adjust FYE components, timeline and budget
  • Continue to gather necessary data
  • Implement transition plan for students entering their second year
  • Complete preparations to implement additional components in spring 2016 and make changes to improve the program


FYE assessment implemented
Financial aid literacy component implemented

Spring 2016


  • Implement FYE components and serve FYE students
  • Implement FYE assessments
  • Continue FYE Advisory Taskforce meetings to garner input on FYE program and how to resolve challenges
  • Adjust FYE components, timeline and budget
  • Continue to gather necessary data
  • Implement transition plan


All project components implemented

Spring/Summer 2016


  • Evaluate program and plan changes
  • Complete preparations to implement fall 2016 program


Barefoot, B. (2000, January/February). The first-year experience: Are we making it any better? About Campus.

Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., Whitt, E and Associates. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Prairie State College Institutional data is provided by the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, Prairie State College.

Robbins, S., Allen, J., Casillas, A., Peterson, C. H. & Le, H. (2006) in Habley W., Bloom, J., and Robbins, S. (2012). Increasing Persistence: Research Based Strategies for College Student Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2012) Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.


Institution Contact

Jan Bonavia, Manager of Planning, Effectiveness & Accreditation

Copyright © 2019 - Higher Learning Commission

NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC highly recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but none represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

Higher Learning Commission • 230 South LaSalle Street, Suite 7-500 • Chicago, IL 60604 • info@hlcommission.org • 800.621.7440

Home | About HLC | Contact Us | Privacy Policy

YouTube graybkgrdLinkedIn graybkgdTwitter graybkgd