The Freshman Experience at Fort Lewis College
Laura M. Godfrey, Director of Assessment
How DO students experience their first college year at Fort Lewis? How do they
change, grow, and develop during that year? And why, oh why, do they leave in such
disproportionate numbers? These questions have defied easy answers for years.
Data on entering students, using UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute
“Freshman Survey”, has given us a much clearer picture of who our freshmen are, how
they experienced high school academically and socially, and what they expect from
college. For the past two years we have also investigated students at the end of their
freshman year, using the “Your First College Year” instrument (also nationally-nor med
through HERI) asking them to reflect back on the experiences of the first year. Now for
the first time we have longitudinal data from freshmen. Over 300 students completed the
end of year survey and nearly 200 students who completed the entering freshman survey
also completed the end of year survey. While no easy answers emerge, a much richer
understanding of the first college year from the student perspective is available to us. The
following are some key insights on the freshman experience at Fort Lewis College. It is
important to keep in mind that these are students who completed the first year and
students who bothered to return the survey.
Unique Characteristics of FLC Entering Freshmen (based on responses from 700 entering
Freshmen Fall 2002 and national norms for 7,000 freshmen entering Public 4 year colleges – low selectivity)
A disproportionate number of FLC’s freshmen come from wealthy, well-educated
families and have no concerns about financing their college education. On the
other hand, another 35 percent of our students are “first generation” and 53
percent of the entire student body receives financial aid. This indicates significant
social class gaps among our student bodies.
We have a disproportionate number of freshmen whose permanent home is 100 to
500+ miles away.
Significantly more FLC freshmen cite “wanted to get away from home” as a very
important reason they decided to go to college (read: in-state tuition; seven hours
While the number is small, 10 percent of FLC freshmen cited “There was nothing
better to do” as a very important reason in deciding to go to college, twice the
national norm at other low selectivity colleges.
Other typical, positive motivators for attending college are notably less important
to FLC entering freshmen than elsewhere. The picture that emerges is a freshman
group farther from home than is typical without a solid commitment to a college
They choose Fort Lewis College because of location and size in every survey ever
administered. We are also the first college source for most students.
Only 21 percent come here because of academic reputation compared to 42
percent at other low-selectivity colleges and only 14 percent choose us because of
special programs compared to 23 percent at similar schools.
Depending on the year 20 to 30 percent come here as freshmen intending to
transfer – two to three times the national norms for both low selectivity and all
How self-perceptions develop during their freshman year: Gender gaps
(Freshman class: 45% Female, 55% Male)
Our entering freshmen rate themselves significantly lower in their academic
ability, and drive to achieve than students nationally. During their freshman year
they lose confidence in their academic ability, men much more so than women but
overall less of a slip than their overly confident peers nationally.
Students rate their leadership skills significantly lower at the end of the freshman
year compared to the beginning, men even more so than women. This drop in
perception of leadership ability is in sharp contrast to national norms where
students change very little from their entering self-perception or drop only
Overall our students, already low on “drive to achieve”, lose some ground in this
area. However, our freshmen women make gains in this area while the men drop
Men also see their popularity slip while women see an increase. Women report
increased social self-confidence while men report decreases. End of the year
freshmen women also show a slight increase in intellectual self-confidence while
our men lose confidence in their intellectual ability significantly more than men
Increasing self-understanding also appears to be gender related with men
reporting no changes since starting college and women developing self-
understanding beyond peers nationally. Our freshmen women also gain a greater
understanding of others than women nationally but our freshmen men report loses
in this area.
Our freshmen show significant increases in confidence with computer skills, and
writing ability regardless of gender.
How behaviors change during their freshman year
Academic behaviors: Getting their act together?
Our freshmen are definitely not bored in class compared to their peers nationally.
Our entering freshmen reported they were more frequently bored in their high
schools classes than students nationally. However during their first year at FLC
both men and women show decreases in boredom with classes while peers
nationwide are increasingly bored.
The overall amount of study time increases during their freshman year (thank
goodness since 50 percent of entering freshmen reported studying less than five
hours a week). Those freshmen that made it to the end of their first year
abandoned the less than one hour a week study habit. There are significant
increases in the percentage of students who report studying 3 to 5 hours per week
and 6 to 10 hours a week during their first college year. Thirty six percent of
students completing their freshman year at FLC report studying 3 to 5 hours a
week, while thirty one percent report studying 6 to10 hours a week. Women study
slightly more than men during their freshman year here. Fewer of our students
study over 10 hours a week than nationally.
Although our freshmen study more here than in high school they still spend
significantly less time than peers nationally on “studying/homework” as well as
significantly less time “attending classes/labs” than peers nationally.
As high school students they reported coming late to class more frequently than
students nationwide. They indicate a significant decrease in this behavior during
their freshman year compared to peers nationally.
While there is a slight decrease in student participation in organized
demonstrations there is a significant increase in discussing politics for both men
and women surpassing national norms for increases in this area.
Social behaviors: Showing some moderation?
Our entering freshmen report alarmingly high rates of alcohol and tobacco
consumption compared to peers nationally. If they didn’t drink before, they do
once they are here with an increase in both men and women at the end of the year
reporting “frequent” consumption of beer, wine or liquor and smoking cigarettes.
The amount of “partying” time end of year freshmen reported shifts towards the
middle with decreases in those who never party along with decreases in those who
partied 11 to 20 hours per week in high school. (Focus groups indicate “partying”
means alcohol is present). Women show the most moderation with 33 percent
reporting 3 to 5 hours spent partying with decreases at both ends of the ranges.
Men show a less distinct pattern with small increase in partying reported for all
time ranges except extremes of “never” and over 20 hours per week. However,
even with this move towards moderation 30 percent of our freshmen men party
more than eleven hours a week compared with 12 percent nationally.
“Socializing with friends” is a different category than “partying” and both men
and women showed a decrease in time spent on this activity compared to high
school except at the extreme range of over 20 hours a week where men report a 19
percentage increase and women report an 8 percent increase along with a 5
percent increase in the 11-15 hour range. Socializing with friends is by far the
biggest chunk of time in the freshman experience.
The amount of time exercising or on sports increases in the moderate time ranges
and shrinks at the high end with fewer men or women spending anywhere from
six to over twenty hours per week on this activity.
Entering FLC freshmen were not joiners in high school with less time spent with
student clubs or groups than peers nationally. This pattern continues during their
freshman year. Over 50 percent of students at the end of their freshman year
report “none” for the amount of time spent participating in this activity; an
increase of 11 percentage points. Most of this change is among women; men
didn’t participate in high school clubs or groups and they don’t in college either.
Unfortunately the percentage of women who participated in clubs or groups in the
3 -5 hours a week range during high school shrinks during their freshman year.
However the pattern for all college freshmen nationwide is decreased
participation in this activity compared to high school.
Interestingly, there is a serious and significant decrease in the reported frequency
with which freshmen interact with someone of another racial/ethnic group
compared with their high school experience that was already slightly below the
national norm. Our freshmen men show a 37 percentage point decrease in
responding “frequently or occasionally” to socializing with someone of a different
racial/ethnic group. Freshmen women report a loss of 11 percentage points.
Our students report feeling less overwhelmed and less depressed than freshmen
elsewhere with only a negligible increase in these areas since high school whereas
students at comparable schools report more stress and depression.
Changes in goals: What is important to them?
When they first arrive “becoming an authority in my field” is significantly less
important to them than peers nationally. However during their freshman year
FLC students increasingly cite this as very important or essential and reach the
national norm for relative importance. The importance of this objective increases
15 percentage points for men and 10 points for women during their freshman
Our entering students give more value than peers nationally to “being involved in
programs to clean up the environment” and this continues strongly through their
freshman year. This is especially strong for men who show a 20-percentage point
increase in citing this as very important or essential.
The importance of “influencing social values” also increases significantly for FLC
students during their freshman year. Both men and women show around 17 -
percentage point growth in this area and end the year citing this as essential or
very important at over twice the national norm.
During their freshman year FLC men also increasingly value becoming
accomplished in one of the performing arts, creating artistic works and
influencing the political structure while women increasingly value developing a
meaningful philosophy of life, and helping to promote racial understanding.
Both men and women see an increased importance in keeping up with political
affairs yet men much more strongly value influencing the political structure.
Our students come here with a stronger than average importance given to
“improving my understanding of other countries and cultures” and the relative
importance of this factor increases during their freshman year so that our students
are nearly 15 percentage points ahead of their peers nationally.
Other Freshman Experiences: Getting Connected? (Based on responses from over 300 FLC
students completing their freshman year 2003, and national norms for 7,000 students)
Connecting with the college:
Contact with faculty. At the end of their freshman year Fort Lewis students
indicate significantly more frequent contact with faculty during office hours than
peers nationally. Our students also interact with faculty outside of class or office
hours significantly more frequently than peers nationally.
Overall our freshmen feel much more successful “getting to know faculty” than
Fort Lewis College freshmen also report significantly more frequent contact with
academic advisors/counselors than peers nationally. The survey does not
distinguish between faculty advisors and advising centers.
Our students also indicate more interaction with other college personnel than
They feel less “isolated from campus life” than peers nationally.
Since entering college our women feel significantly more successful than our men
“understanding what professors expect academically” and somewhat more
successful developing effective study skills.
FLC freshmen women also feel significantly more successful adjusting to the
academic demands of college and utilizing campus services.
Not surprisingly, significantly more women would choose to enroll at FLC if they
had the chance to make their college choice again.
Connecting with peers
FLC end-of-year freshmen women indicate more contact with close friends at this
institution compared to the freshmen men
Women stay in contact with close friends not at this institution significantly more
than the men but slightly below the national norm.
They also stay in contact with family significantly more than the men but once
again still slightly below national norms.
Both men and women feel successful developing close friendships with other
students at near the national norm, women slightly more than men.
Our end-of-year freshmen are significantly more satisfied with recreational
facilities, classroom facilities, counseling services and financial aid services than
peers nationally. Satisfaction with computer facilities ranked highest.
These students are significantly less satisfied with library facilities, and
orientation for new students,
Their satisfaction is similar to students nationally for, academic advising, housing
facilities, and health services and slightly higher for tutoring services.
While no single pattern emerges we can conclude that women have a more positive
experience and adjust to college better than men. Both male and female students who
persisted through their freshman year are connecting with faculty, engaging in classes
and making friends. Life objectives noted as very important or essential change during
their freshman year with influencing social values, being involved with environmental
issues, becoming an authority in my field and developing a meaningful philosophy of life
showing significant increases. Environmental engagement is a priority for entering
freshmen far beyond their peers nationally and increases while they are here. Our
students show significantly less confidence in their leadership skills after their first
college year while peers nationally stayed about the same as when they began college.
Next steps: The data from these surveys needs to be merged with the FLC database to
determine: 1) which of these freshmen have persisted to the Fall, 2) what, if any, set of
characteristics they share and 3) can these characteristics be used to help us recruit
students who will be successful here.