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First-year Momentum—What it is and Why it Matters

By Melinda Karp, Consultant, EdInsights and the CSU Student Success Network, and Founder, Phase Two Advisory

The term “first-year momentum” comes up a lot these days in higher education discussions about how to improve student success. At this past spring’s convening of the CSU Student Success Network at CSU Northridge, teams of faculty and staff from 15 CSU campuses met to explore the concept and its potential for their campuses. But what does first-year momentum mean, and why does it matter? After all, we have long known that the first year of college is critical to support student persistence and, ultimately, to lead to timely graduation. Isn’t tracking first-semester and first-year retention sufficient to understand and address student momentum and related equity gaps?

The answer to this question is “not anymore,” based on recent research that identifies more predictive indicators of students’ likelihood to make it to graduation. While traditional metrics such as first-semester retention are useful proxies for longer-term success, several other momentum metrics focus on more specific milestones that students must meet on the path to graduation. What’s particularly helpful about these metrics, as I describe below, is that they are directly related to actionable student behaviors, institutional practices, and state and institutional policies—which means that the metrics can help identify some concrete steps that colleges and universities can consider to increase the likelihood that new students will be propelled toward college success.

The concept of momentum

The notion of “academic momentum” is often attributed to the late Cliff Adelman, who used national data to illustrate the ways in which achieving key milestones early in college correlates with longer-term postsecondary success. Subsequent research extended and refined what academic momentum looks like and provided additional empirical support. These new metrics go beyond first-year retention to identify specific intermediate achievements that are empirically related to graduation. Looking across studies in two- and four-year higher education systems, researchers at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, identified three in particular.

  1. First-year credits. Students who attempt 15 credits in their first term or 30 credits in their first year are more likely to graduate than those who attempt 12 per term or fewer than 30 per year.
  2. Gateway course completion. Students who enroll in and pass introductory college-level math and English courses during their first academic year are more likely to graduate than those who do not.
  3. Program momentum. Students who identify and enter a degree path early and accumulate credits toward the degree, are more likely to graduate on time than those who earn excess credits outside of a degree program. What matters is accumulating credits that actually add up to a degree.

Note that these metrics put a finer point on more traditional notions of first-year success. Earning credits in a major is a subset of earning credits more broadly; both are crucial to timely graduation, but the former is likely to propel a student to completion more quickly. Similarly, it’s important but not sufficient that students remain enrolled each semester; they must also take and pass the math and English courses that are required for graduation.

Moreover, the specificity of these metrics suggest strategies that colleges and universities can consider to improve student momentum on their campuses. If taking 15 credits creates more momentum than taking 12, for example, then faculty and staff might consider strategies to encourage students to increase their course load. Similarly, the importance of early entry into a degree path signals a greater need for major- and career-focused advising for first-year students.

Student momentum in action

Georgia State University has garnered significant attention for rapidly increasing its graduation rate and virtually closing its outcomes gap. While there is no “secret sauce” for replicating GSU’s success, its story is pertinent here because the university examined the research about first-year momentum and put it into practice. As described in a case study by Ithaka S+R, Georgia State restructured the first year of college as a “momentum year making changes to help ensure that all students encounter structures, supports, and relationships that propel them toward degree completion.

For example, faculty and staff examined data and identified “sticking points” where students were leaving in higher-than-expected numbers. They found that many students were taking “easy” courses to earn grade point averages (GPAs) that made them eligible for competitive majors. But those courses did not count toward a degree—which, momentum research tells us, inhibits completion even if students have strong grades. Thus, Georgia State shifted entry requirements for competitive programs from aggregate GPAs to minimum grades in key introductory-level courses. It also created broad “meta-majors” that allow students to explore related subjects while narrowing down their program options and simultaneously earning credits that will count toward more than one program, thereby reducing major-switching and increasing graduation-related credit accrual.

Extending the concept

How does this research relate to the CSU? At the CSU Student Success Network convening in April, the 15 CSU campus teams dug into the research on momentum and considered strategies that might be useful for students at their own institutions. During these discussions, two sets of questions emerged.

The first concerns the relevance of momentum metrics to the CSU. Participants noted that most of the momentum studies were conducted at two-year colleges and they wanted to see studies like that replicated in the CSU. This suggests that the CSU system and individual campuses can serve a leading role in using their own data to identify the milestones most correlated with timely completion on their own campuses. Existing research can be a guide, but it is crucial to examine empirical evidence from the CSU. For example, some CSU campuses (e.g., CSU Fullerton and CSU San Marcos) are examining the relationship between unit load and academic success for their students. Similar studies could be replicated across the CSU to understand the impacts of momentum milestones more broadly.

The other set of questions that emerged concerns issues of practice. Moving beyond student retention to also consider more nuanced measures of momentum is a substantial shift in perspective for some campuses. Moreover, faculty and staff said that identifying which strategies to focus on is challenging. For example, participants cited funding constraints in seeking to provide more career-focused advising. Others wondered how to ensure that momentum-focused policies do not assign students to tracks too early, or put underprepared students into courses for which they aren’t ready. While student momentum metrics can suggest a range of actions to consider, the development of campus strategies needs to be part of a holistic approach by faculty, staff, and administrators to support student learning, engagement, progression, and success.

These questions highlight the potential for CSU campuses to take a leadership role in examining their own data about key momentum points that might impact student completion, and in carefully evaluating the impacts of efforts to improve first-year student momentum. Moving beyond student persistence to examine student momentum metrics will require exploration and experimentation—processes that can be facilitated by sharing ideas and experiences among colleagues across CSU campuses.

Are you taking steps to examine and address student momentum points at your CSU campus? Do you have instructive failures, incremental progress, or spectacular successes to share with other CSU campuses? If so, we’d like to hear about your work. Please contact Sasha Horwitz at EdInsights to learn more.