285. The First-Year Experience Movement

Far too many students enter college without sufficient preparation to successfully navigate the college environment. In this episode, John Gardner joins us to discuss how first-year experience courses have been developed and adopted at thousands of colleges globally to reduce equity gaps and improve student success.

John is the recipient of numerous awards for his innovative work on first-year student success programs. In 3 studies, he was listed as one of the 10 most noteworthy innovators in higher ed. John is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles related to college student transitions. With his wife, Betsy Barefoot, he is the co-author of a series of textbooks for first-year student success classes. He is also the founder of the annual Conference on The First-year Experience as well as the Gardner Institute, a nonprofit organization that has served more than 500 colleges and universities. John is the author of Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey.

Show Notes

  • Barefoot, B. O., Gardner, J. N., Cutright, M., Morris, L. V., Schroeder, C. C., Siegel, M. J., … & Swing, R. L. (2010). Achieving and sustaining institutional excellence for the first year of college. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The undergraduate experience: Focusing institutions on what matters most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Gardner, J. N., Barefoot, B. O., & Swing, R. L. (2001). Guidelines for Evaluating… The First-Year Experience at Two-Year Colleges.
  • Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2011). Your college experience: Strategies for success. Macmillan.
  • Gardner, J. N., Barefoot, B. O., & Swing, R. L. (2001). Guidelines for Evaluating… The First-Year Experience at Four-Year Colleges.
  • Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2017). Understanding writing transfer: Implications for transformative student learning in higher education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Upcraft, M. L., Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2005). Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college (Vol. 254). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gardner, J. N. (2023). Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience.
  • Gardner Institute
  • David Brightman (LinkedIn)
  • Marietta College
  • Federal TRIO Programs
  • Office Hours with John Gardner podcast


John K: Far too many students enter college without sufficient preparation to successfully navigate the college environment. In this episode, we examine how first-year experience courses have been developed and adopted at thousands of colleges globally to reduce equity gaps and improve student success.


John K: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John K: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John K: Our guest today is John Gardner. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his innovative work on first-year student success programs. In 3 studies, he was listed as one of the 10 most noteworthy innovators in higher ed. John is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles related to college student transitions. With his wife, Betsy Barefoot, he is the co-author of a series of textbooks for first-year student success classes. He is also the founder of the annual Conference on The First-year Experience as well as the Gardner Institute, a nonprofit organization that has served more than 500 colleges and universities. John is also the author of Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey, which we’ll be talking about here today.

Rebecca: Welcome, John.

John G: Thank you, folks. Glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… John, are you drinking tea with us today?

John G: I’m not able to drink… well, I guess I could, but recently, a physician told me I needed to stop drinking tea. There is some substance that is not good for the plumbing, and so I’ve switched to coffee, so I did have a cup of coffee before this, although I didn’t need the caffeine, but I’m already pretty alert. [LAUGHTER] But, if I were drinking tea, I’d be drinking a black tea, caffeinated, and I love tea.

Rebecca: That’s just my style. That’s so sad not to be able to drink it anymore.

John G: Well, I lived in Canada for five years as a child and I learned to do it up there. A lot of them have emulated their British Commonwealth forbearers and drank tea in the afternoons. And even as a middle school child in a Canadian school, we were served tea. So I really learned to like it.

Rebecca: No choice, no choice at all.

John K: And I mostly started switching to tea to cut back on caffeine because I was having so much of it. There was a bit less in tea than coffee and other things I was drinking. Today I’m drinking a ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: And John, I have your back. I have a fairly highly caffeinated black tea. It’s an English Afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

John K: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Launching the First-Year Experience Movement. Could you talk a little bit about the motivation for writing this book?

John G: For one thing, I think it’s the only book I’ve done as a single co-author, it’s been my preference for my entire career always to partner with others in my writing, I just find it goes better and I like the sharing collaborative process. And I had done I think eight books previously with an editor that was the editor for this book. So he knew me very well. His name is David Brightman. And David’s the best editor for this kind of work I’ve ever encountered. And he was with Stylus Publishing but Stylus has just been sold to the Routledge Publishing house. But David had been talking to me about doing a book to try to really accomplish a number of things, but to tell the story of the launching of what’s now a global movement to pay more attention to first-year students, and also to connect that to other things that were going on in the world, and especially in the United States from the 1980s on and also to tell my own story and how I was prepared to do this kind of work even though I didn’t set out to do this at all. I didn’t set out initially to launch a global movement on behalf of a sector of students. But there were several developments in more recent years that I think influenced this and one was, the longer I’ve gone on in my career, and as the higher education community has become what our critics call “more woke,” I increasingly felt I was encountering, rather arbitrarily and irrespective of anything I might have said in any meeting, a level of hostility from people who were other than white males. And it was hostility that I think white men deserve for all the injustices we have wreaked on the American way of life. But I didn’t cause those. And I increasingly felt that there was a growing attitude that if you were white and male and especially privileged, that you just couldn’t understand the current needs of students the way you needed to, to really make a difference for them. And I began to feel more defensive, but generally, I didn’t acknowledge it publicly. So one of the things I wanted to do in this book was to argue that everyone needs to be involved in this movement, including privileged white men. And I wanted to lay out how I overcame all the blinders that I grew up with in a family of significant affluence, where the last thing my family would have wanted me to become, what some regard me as, which is an equity warrior. And by the time I was in my middle 20s, there wasn’t a cause I didn’t want to be part of. I had served in the armed forces during the Vietnam era, I had the coveted honorable discharge, which every young, healthy, able bodied American male like me wanted to have. And I was single and I had no debt and no dependents that I knew of, and there was just nothing I felt I couldn’t do. And so I became a really active civil rights warrior. And that cost me my first job. I was fired in my first job in higher education because of that, and that resolved me to be even more determined about how I pursue this. And so anyway, the book was about how did higher education change me? I want to use a word that some of us use trepidatiously, how did higher education transform me to be able to do this kind of work? Because I believe that higher education can and should transform far more than just me. And that speaks to the power of it. So this book is about the transformative power of higher education.

Rebecca: So in your book, Launching the First-Year Experience, you describe some of those challenges that you face as a first-year college student. Can you talk a little bit about how those experiences helped shape your future work?

John G: I went to a private liberal arts college in Ohio, Marietta College. I had a very traditional college experience, four years of residence, living on campus, did not work except for one brief period. Essentially, I was a non-employed student while I was in college during the regular part of the years. I never met a transfer student, I didn’t know they existed. there were only three persons that I can remember in my first-year class of about 500 students that were not white. So to say that I had a very traditional undergraduate experience was to understate the matter. And in the book that you’ve referenced, I devote the first four chapters to what happened to me as an undergraduate student starting in the first year, and the second year, the third year, and the fourth year, and it was a process of transformation. So in the first-year, I was a year younger than most of my peers, I was only 17. I did not want to go to college. It was an agreement I had made with my father, I was what we call now in contemporary higher ed language, I was a counter dependent adolescent, meaning I wanted to do the opposite of what adult authority figures wanted me to do. And my adult authority figure was my father. He’d attended an Ivy League institution, so that’s what I was supposed to do. And then I was supposed to go work in corporate America like he did and make a lot of money. It wasn’t that I was opposed to making money, but I didn’t want to work in corporate America. And I thought, one of the things I’d done as a high school kid was I had created a little landscaping service business, I had six other adolescent males who worked for me and I went out and got the jobs and then supervised them. And I loved working outdoors and having people satisfied by the work I did. I thought I could love doing this. And my father was horrified that I was earning a bit of money and I had this as a vocational aspiration. So I made a deal with him. And that is that he’d get off my back about going to college, if we could agree that I would go one year, and then I could quit. And so it really didn’t matter at that point where I wanted to go to college, as long as I didn’t go to college where he wanted me to go to college. So I went to college. And I got on academic probation pretty rapidly. I was 17, lonely, homesick, clinically depressed. The environment there was truly what we call sink or swim. And as a matter of fact, at the opening convocation, the President boasted about how if we look to the left and look to the right, we wouldn’t see the person sitting on either side of us four years later. And initially, I said, “Well, okay, when I graduate, I won’t see these two guys,” and then it dawned on me: “Wait a minute, both of them looked at me.” And I looked up at this man. He was proud of it. He was grinning. And what I later learned, of course, was that a benchmark of quality in the early 1960s… this was 1961… was the number of students you flunked out. That was a measure, that was a yardstick, and they were very good at it. And so therefore, there was no support services like we have today, no first-year experience, first-year college success course, no Learning Center, no tutoring. It was absolutely sink or swim. They did have advising. My first academic advisor told me, twice as a matter of fact, not once, but he told me twice, and I quote, “Mr. Gardner, you’re the stupidest kid I’ve ever advised.” And I thought about that…that guy’s probably advised hundreds of students, could I really be the stupidest? And that’s a bit far fetched. I wasn’t doing well, but anyway, maybe I better get another advisor. So I changed advisors. And that was one of the steps to my transformation. But my first semester grades were awful, and I got on academic probation. And of course, now, many institutions, when they put a student on probation, there’s a structure you have to comply with, or you complete the probationary period, but there was no structure. It was just a technical status. But somehow I managed to pull my performance up. And I thank the faculty for that, I finally discovered the four out of five faculty that second term that really got me engaged intellectually, but I had a student friend who befriended me, he adopted me. It was a student who was one year older, and of course confirmed that everything I’ve learned in the next 56 years in my career is that the greatest influence on students while they’re in college is the influence of other students. And now we try to deliberately get our high-performing students in positions where they can influence new students. That wasn’t done in Marietta at that time. But anyway, this student was taking a class with me, he was a year older, he was a sophomore by which the Greeks meant “wise fool.” And he said to me one day after class, “John, I noticed you’re not taking any notes.” And I said “So?” And he said, “Well, let me show you my notebook.” And it was like a fundamentalist opening any page of the sacred book, putting his finger down, And there was the revealed word. This guy had every word the professor had said. And so he showed me how one could predict the questions that you’d get on an exam by looking at the professorial notes. And he showed me how he could organize, or I could organize, my notes to make them coherent, and put headings and subheadings. And that I could predict the questions by observing what the professor said, repetitively, and therefore what he believed or she believed was important. By the way, it was almost always a he. I have done account fairly recently, in the 40 courses I took as an undergraduate, only three were taught by women, 37 to three, and one of the things I introspect around is, how would I be different if I had had more female faculty, that’s one of the ways I was cheated. I was disproportionately mentored by men. And we have made some progress in that regard. I can tell you a lot more first-year anecdotes, one I have in my book was and I should tell you this, other than having to wear freshman beanies… I burned mine… the most memorable thing that happened to me in my the first few weeks of college was something I didn’t do. And it was one of the most important decisions I ever made. It was a fraternity that rushed all the new males to try to find new members. And what they had been doing, apparently for years, was offering new young men like me, an all expenses paid trip to a brothel. And the brothel was about 90 miles up the Ohio River in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I was offered this experience. And while I was 17, I was interested in sex, I thought, “Do I really want to do this? No, I don’t.” And then I thought “Do I want to join a group that would put me in this position, and pay some women to service me? How denigrating. I don’t want anything to do with them.” And so I developed a real aversion to the whole so-called Greek letter social fraternity experience. And to fast forward to my junior year, that guy that influenced me in my sophomore year, once I started emulating his note taking my grades went up dramatically. A profound influence, and I never would have gotten through college, I don’t think, if that guy hadn’t taught me how to take notes. Marietta College today has an outstanding academic support service. And they don’t leave that to random. They want to teach the students how to do that. But anyway, this guy that saved me, we stayed in touch, he gave me a lot of advice on what courses to take. And he taught me to choose my courses by professor. That was more important than the subject, who I could really connect with, who would get in there and rattle my cage intellectually. So in my junior year, he persuaded me that I should join him in a campaign to persuade the college to abolish the fraternity system. And Don Quixote-like we challenged the fraternities to a public debate in the student union building to justify their existence in a liberal arts community. We took out ads in the student newspaper, we put up posters, and the day of the debate came around. And they taught me a very important lesson about politics. They taught me something about stonewalling, not a single one of them showed up. And there we were alone in the rented room in the student union building, and no students came, they all thought we were nuts, we were so counterculture. And I don’t know that I realized that then, but the perfect environment for somebody like me, who has some wild idea that may be really out of sync, the perfect place for me is the Academy. We are made for people like me. And so I went on and found other causes for the balance of my undergraduate career. I should say, parenthetically, that it’s been some years later in my career, that I’ve learned that Greek-affiliated males and females have significantly higher probability of graduation than non-affiliated undergraduate students, they give more money as alumni, and they learn, as my father told me I would learn. He wanted me to join a fraternity. And his reason was, and I quote, “Son, you join a fraternity, and you’ll learn how to run a company,” like he did. And that was not an aspiration. When I was at the University of South Carolina as a faculty member, a student affairs Dean came up to me one day and said, “John, I know you’re going to tell me no, but please listen to me, hear me out. I would like you to consider being a faculty advisor to a brand new fraternity.” I said, “Mark, you gotta be kidding. Why in the world would I do that?” He said, “Well, John, this group is different. They are not going to practice a white Christian membership drive, there will be no singing dirty songs in public and no hazing and no secret rituals. They’re going to be a different kind of fraternity. So would you at least meet with these guys once? They’re trying to organize this as a new fraternity” I thought “I gotta meet a group of guys like this” and he kept it up by saying that the President of this group is an art major. And I said “He’s got to be the only fraternity chair in the country who’s an art major. I got to meet him.” So I met with these guys, and they won me over and I agreed to become their faculty advisor and I did it for 16 years. And I learned from that, that it’s a lot easier to sit back and criticize the behaviors of undergraduate students, rather than trying to do something constructive with them. And so for 16 years, I did a lot of constructive things with them, and they were good for me too.

John K: The impact of fraternities and sororities are probably mostly because they form those connections that you were talking about. Those connections can be positive or negative, as in the case of some of the fraternity behavior you describe, like some of the hazing issues and so forth, which were pretty pervasive at that time.

John G: Well, they’re still very pervasive, many of them have been driven underground. But these are the elements of the traditions of American higher education that were created by white men in the late 18th century, early 19th century, and they endure, they’re powerful. The system was designed for people like me, white New England property owning Protestant males.

John K: So you mentioned that your first-year of college did not provide students with a lot of support in terms of how to learn effectively, how to take notes, and so forth. Did high schools provide much preparation for college at the time, or today for that matter?

John G: Well, I think there’s a difference, then I think they did a better job for white students anyway, particularly in school districts that had high tax bases, which is where I lived, I lived in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, New Canaan, Connecticut, where I went to an outstanding high school. So yeah, I had great experience in critical thinking and reading and writing. As a matter of fact, one of the aspirations my father had for each of the three children was that each of us had a library, he wanted each child to have a library. And so I had bookshelves in my room, and I read a lot. And of course, he thought that we would read more if we didn’t have television, so he deliberately eschewed any television in the house. And when the last kid went to college, he bought three televisions. So yeah, I was well prepared intellectually for college, but I was not well prepared in terms of my maturity, or my attitudes. And this is important, I think, to the larger focus of your podcast series, because even the students that are well prepared can have developmental issues that impede their progress in college. And I was definitely structured for lack of success. And it had not been for especially a fellow student and the faculty that took me under their wing, I would never have made it and I owe them everything. And there’s a huge unpaid debt on my part. Years later, I became a trustee at my alma mater. I did that for twelve years, I’m still connected to alma mater, and working with them on several things. So yes, your question about my preparation had been outstanding, it was necessary but not sufficient, because the transition to college is not only an intellectual one, it’s a psychosocial, physical, spiritual, emotional process. And I wasn’t ready in many of those respects.

Rebecca: One of the things that you describe in your book is your military experience in the Air Force. And you indicated that that was more equitable than society as a whole. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how that experience may have impacted the work that you’ve done moving forward?

John G: Well, I was a college student from undergraduate from 61 to 65. And during that period, the only good thing I ever heard about the military from my professors was praise for the veterans who had come to Marietta College after World War Two, those largely, in many cases entirely, men, they were so good. I couldn’t believe they were real, but the attitude about them was that the military was conservative, it was reactionary, pro war. I had negative attitudes about that whole class of people that do this, even though I was living in college in a town, Marietta, Ohio, that was founded by military veterans of the American Revolution, who were the recipients of the first largesse from the new government of the United States that didn’t have the currency to pay them. And so they gave them land grants. And this notion of the government owing something to the men and women who serve us in the military, it was a foundation for a tradition. And of course, after World War Two, you had over 12 million GIs who received the GI Bill, and I was in college, and I graduated in a terrible year to graduate from college, 1965, If you were male, and able bodied, and mentally competent, you were fodder for the American draft. And so young men like me who were moving towards graduation in the year 1965, we were strategizing about what we could do to keep out of the army because the buildup was occurring, and young men like me were being sent to die, and many of us were dying. And so what you did was you tried to get a so called deferment, and you could get a deferment for going to graduate school, for being married, for going to seminary, or working for a defense contractor. Those were the four criteria. And I had several women that I considered whether or not I could marry, not simultaneously, but I wisely decided I was not mature enough, that that would have been unjust of me to do that. But many of my classmates did exactly that. They married women to stay out of the military. And eventually, as the war went on, it wasn’t sufficient just to be married, then you had to have dependent children, and we even got to the point where they were drafting them with dependent children. But at the time I graduated, ‘65, if you were married, you would not have been drafted. I didn’t want to go to seminary, I was not a conventionally religious person. College had eradicated the Christianity I’d been grown up. I was skeptical, agnostic.So, I don’t want to become a minister. And I didn’t want to work for a defense contractor. My father was a very senior executive who managed 60 factories in the United States. And they produced war materials, he could have arranged for me like President Bush, 41, arranged for his son to stay out of the military, but I didn’t do that. So anyway, I went to graduate school, like I’d been an undergraduate, I liked so many things intellectually, I never chose a major. So I had gotten an interdisciplinary major, and I found there was a graduate field where I could do the same thing, it’s called American Studies, and I could study American literature, history, sociology, and I did that. And I thought, “Okay, I’m safe.” But Uncle Sam had a surprise for me. My second semester of graduate school, I got my draft notice, because in my draft jurisdiction in Connecticut, there were not enough unemployed, uneducated young men to draft. They started drafting college graduates in 1965, one of whom, a friend of mine, was killed in Vietnam. So I was about to be drafted, and so I decided I got to leverage my odds here. And so I opted to go into the Air Force, Air Force officer training, and the Air Force, in its infinite wisdom, made me something I had never been. They trained me as a psychiatric social worker, and assigned me to a base in South Carolina as one of two personnel in the base hospital psychiatric clinic. We have one psychiatrist and one social worker. Now the military, to specifically answer your question, was like going into another planet. Growing up in a very affluent white community, and nobody who didn’t look like me in college and graduate school, I had never been in an environment that was significantly racially integrated, or that was significantly integrated in terms of social class. In the military, it was very different. I was surrounded by people who weren’t like me, and I was living with them and serving with them. That had a huge impact on me. My first day on my base, my squadron commander called me in. He braced me at attention. I looked down over my glasses, and I saw that I was standing very properly alert in front of a black man. And I said, “Wow, this is going to be different, John. The only black people you’ve been around are people that work for your family. This man you work for.” And I had to do what he told me to do. And he gave me this homily. He said, “Gardner, although we’re in the Air Force, we’re an occupying army, and we’re occupying the state of South Carolina. This is only two and a half years after the Civil Rights Act, and we are going to do the best we can to transform South Carolina.” And I will tell you, when you went on the base, it was like going into another country. I left a totally segregated environment at the base gate, on the base, everything was racially integrated: drinking fountains, toilets, residential accommodation, schools, golf course, PX, movie theater, bowling alley, everything. And it was just transformative. And my commander also said to me, “Gardner, you’re the most educated person in the squadron other than the physicians.” And I didn’t know he was going somewhere with this and I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Gardner, that means you’re going to do community service.” And I said, “Yes, sir. What is that?” Now, I would hope that nobody who listens to your podcast and who’s a higher educator or any kind of citizen will allow somebody to get to be 22 years old, and never have said to them, “You have some obligation to perform community service.” I didn’t know what that meant. So I told him, I said, “Sir, yes sir. But what is that, sir?” And he said, “Gardener, it’s exactly what I tell you. I own you. The Air Force owns you, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” “Yes, sir.” He said, “And Gardner. In your case, community service is going to be teaching at night when you’re off duty in an on-base program we have for the University of South Carolina, for our active duty military personnel to earn college degrees while they’re in the Air Force.” “Yes, sir, But sir, I’ve never taught anything. I’m not prepared to do that.” “Gardner, the Air Force needs people like you to do this, you will do this.” “Okay.” Two weeks later, I started teaching my first class. And that was an epiphany. At the same time, my patients were overwhelmingly male. They were white, and they were black. And they all had something in common. They were all anxious because they were all going to Vietnam, not all of them because some of them were coming back from Vietnam because our base had a very specialized function that was only performed at this base. This base was responsible for the reconnaissance mission over Vietnam, the photography that was done to plot the bombing runs, and these were very specialized functions. And so we saw these troops before they went over and when they came back. And when they came back, of course, they were profoundly different. They all had VD and they had, oh my God, all kinds of types of dysfunctions that they didn’t have before they went over. I taught on the military base, I taught off the base at a rural regional campus at the University of South Carolina where all my students were mill workers, or children of mill workers. They were so different from me. And they had courage to be there, nobody in their family had ever been to college, but they were, in effect almost untouched previously by education, they were so deprived of the kind of education that I had had. But they had such enormous potential. And it was so exciting teaching these students. I just loved it. And I look forward to going to class, I was teaching five nights a week and Saturday mornings. I was really busy. And I found that college teaching and this is something we do with undergraduate students… We asked undergraduate students, can you think of anything that you really love to do that you could convert to a legal living and support yourself and your family, and that would have socially redeeming value, and maybe contribute to our country. And as I started teaching, I thought, I love to do four things. And the first, when you’re a college teacher, you get to talk, and they were paying me to talk… never thought that I could earn a living talking, I got a D and speech 101 in college. a Secondly, in order to talk, you have to have something to say you have to prepare to talk. So how do you prepare? You read. Oh, my God, they were paying me for reading, I love to read. And then you read and you wrote something. You had to have a script. And I never thought I could earn a living writing. And the fourth thing was helping people. I was talking, reading, writing, helping people, all together. And the other thing, talk about a benchmark, when I compared it to sex, I thought, God, this lasts a lot longer. I can do this with all kinds of people. There are no complications from this, well, maybe some but anyway, I want to do this for life. And so the Air Force was a laboratory in social justice. It was the military that expanded opportunity for black people in this country. It was the military that provided opportunities for women that they had never had before. I was in an environment where, for many people, what mattered was their competence: could they perform? …and that was revolutionary. So I got a hint of the fact that we could do better. And a very important lesson from this was, and I’ve carried this through my work as an educator, that what transformed South Carolina ultimately, to the extent it’s been transformed, and it’s backsliding right now, because of the Republican right, but it’s going to get over that, it’s going to join the United States again. But what transformed it was policy, law, the law changed in 1964, by mandating that based on the interpretation, previously, of the Supreme Court and then the enactment by Congress, there would be no discrimination in terms of employment and housing and health care and a number of other areas as a function of race and ethnicity. And unbeknownst to many Americans, at the same time, Congress slipped in gender in the middle of the night, that made it into the bill. And so now, we didn’t instantly desegregate South Carolina. but the process began. The South Carolina State Government fought desegregation of public education until 1970, it took 16 years to integrate the public schools. But when you get the policy right, policy sets parameters for people’s behaviors, and a lot of the work I do now with colleges and universities is trying to get the policies right, trying to get the rules that students operate under that get them either to do or not do certain things. And if you get them to do things, certain things, they’re going to be more successful. So the big takeaway lesson there was that, if you get the rules right, to create a really democratic, more egalitarian culture where everybody gets an opportunity, well, you can transform things. So the Air Force, it gave me my profession, I love the psychiatric social work, but I decided I didn’t want to do that as an occupation, and that I could take a lot that I learned from that into my work as an educator: how to talk to people, listen to people, coach people, advise people… the advice giving process, just be willing to listen to people and offer them different perspectives on their lives. That’s what college faculty do. There’s a long body of research now that students who interact with college faculty outside of class, they have qualitatively different kinds of experience in college. And I learned that that’s what I want to do.

John K: So after leaving the military, you moved into college teaching. And you mentioned already that you had some issues because of your advocacy for civil rights. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?

John G: Yeah, what I did was I was a faculty member at a state supported all female college in Rock Hill, South Carolina, what is now Winthrop University, and myself and another radical young professor, we decided that what this little town needs is a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. So we formed a chapter of the ACLU and proceeded to sue several prominent members of the community for doing what we thought was violating the Constitution. The problem was, I wasn’t too careful about determining whom I might get ACLU attorneys to sue for us, and I ended up suing the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the college that employed me, because he was practicing racial discrimination, the assignment of employment duties and wages and other working conditions to members of a black church whose pastor came to us and asked if we would intervene so we sued this company and when the owner of the company found out who was behind that he contacted the president of the college and who promptly fired me. Now we don’t of course fire people usually promptly in the academy, we give them a notice of non-renewal. So I had the rest of the year to work out my appointment and I had to get another job. And at that point, thankfully, the folks at the University of South Carolina remembered me well, because of my adjunct teaching when I was in the Air Force. And so I got a job at the University of South Carolina where I worked for the next 30 years and rose from the rank of instructor to distinguished professor and had a wonderful career there and was treated with total respect for my academic freedom, and was never muzzled in any way. And I have nothing but respect and appreciation for that university for giving me the opportunities to do the national and global work which I’ve been doing ever since. So that’s what happened to me in that starting experience.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the university 101 course was developed at USC?

John G: I better define that. University 101 is the University of South Carolina version of a type of course that has been in the American college curriculum since 1882… 1882. But it’s evolved and waxed and waned, and it had a resurrection in the 1970s, thanks to something the University of South Carolina did. And the course, University 101, has been replicated now at hundreds of institutions…1000s, actually… primarily in the United States, but in a number of other countries as well, Canada most notably but in other versions of what’s done in 101 with a number of nations, Europe and elsewhere. University 101 is a three credit hour letter graded course, where we introduce students to how to be a successful college student, we teach them the knowledge and the skills and the behaviors and the attitudes to be successful in college. Why did we do this? We did this because in May of 1970, the week that the United States invaded the sovereign nation of Cambodia, there was a protest on the university campus, over 1000 students demonstrated, the governor called out the National Guard, the South Carolina National Guard and tear gassed the students. They went into the building with the president, occupied his office. They set the building on fire. They made him sit in for 24 hours after the Fire Department put out the fire. And he emerged from this by saying something very profound in a press conference he held. He said that: “The students have given me an extended opportunity for reflection on the meaning of student behavior.” That’s the key. You look at students, you look at their behavior, and you say, “What do you learn from that? What do you learn about what students need and what kind of experiences are they having?” And what we learned was, they were furious. They were angry. And so the question institutionally became, instead of producing angry students, how might you produce happy campers? And so the President had this radical idea he said, It was like he was channeling me or I was channeling him. Because in the Air Force, I learned you could teach anybody any set of attitudes you want. You could teach him to hate, to kill, to help, to learn, to grow, to regress. What do you want to teach them to do? And he decided, What if we tried, at the University of South Carolina, to teach students to “love,” the active verb, love, love the University? How would you do that? If they loved the University, they wouldn’t riot anymore, and they would stay longer, and they would flourish, and they’d get degrees, and they would serve South Carolina, the public. So we set out to redesign the first year and I was one of 25 faculty and staff that this man called on the phone, had me paged, gave me, like I was back in the Air Force again, a direct order that I was to go to a workshop to learn how to humanize the University of South Carolina. And so we spent three hours an afternoon five afternoons a week for three weeks, this President and 25 faculty and student affairs staff, to create this concept of University 101. University 101 has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, going stronger than ever, even though, maybe and because of the fact that I have not been its director for 25 years. But I did become the director after the first two years. And it was the joy of my life to develop this experience, which has helped 1000s of students and significantly increased our success rates. So that’s what university 101 is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the most critical components of a successful first-year experience are?

John G: Yes, the most critical components are certain types of knowledge that you acquire, certain skills, and certain types of behaviors that you practice. One of the biggest enemies of first-year student success is making stupid decisions with all the freedom you get in college. So we focus a lot on this theme of freedom versus responsibility. Yes, we’re giving you a great deal of freedom to be here, it’s one of the gifts you get when you join a university or college family. The question is, what are you doing with your freedom, what kind of choices that you’re making? So we put a lot of emphasis on decision making. We also know that there are a set of core academic skills, like I didn’t have when I started, like note taking, that you can teach students. We know that if you engage in certain behaviors in college, you’re more likely to persist. If you participate in certain organizations, if you have what we call in American culture, a support group, if you can find a mentor, if you can find people who you admire and want to become like, and not only if you learn about what are the helping services and resources, but if you use them. So we’re trying to get students to engage in what we call assistance-seeking behavior. And that’s much harder to do for men than it is for women, which is one of the reasons that women persist and graduate at higher rates than men. And so there’s no question we know what to do to make students successful. We just, as an institution, have to have the will and the intentionality to do this. is deliberately. Hugely important is making students feel like they belong. This is a home for them, they fit, F-I-T, and there are lots of ways you can help students fit. And that’s what we try to do in what has become known as the first-year experience. That’s a succinct answer to your question.

John K: One of the things that I found interesting about your description of the University 101 class was the time spent in professional development, because I don’t think that’s very common for most college faculty, before teaching a course, that there was a lot of professional development. And it was interesting to see that happening so early. Could you talk to us a little bit about why that was put into the process.

John G: This all goes back to my President at the time, it was his vision. He was a native Mississippian, who had managed to get a scholarship to a high school completer, to go to, of all places, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he become an engineer, he went on from there, he became dean of engineering at Purdue. He came to the University of South Carolina in 1962, let it 12 years, presided over the peaceful integration of the university. We were one of the few southern universities that did not need federal marshals or troops or sheriff’s deputies to integrate. What he learned from this was that in the period, particularly after the Higher Education Act of 1965, when we were expanding higher education, creating larger and larger institutions, that these environments became less friendly to undergraduate students. And so what he learned was that we had to, “humanize” the university environment to be more accommodating to first-generation students who did not come from college-educated families. And the principal agents of humanization were the faculty because they had the most interaction with students. But in their graduate school preparation, that’s not what they’ve been taught to do. They’ve been produced as experts in a discipline, and they’ve not had any experiences and how to teach that discipline other than to emulate their mentors. And so his vision was, if you wanted to humanize a whole university environment, you had to change the behavior of the students. But to change the behavior of the students, you had to change the behavior of the faculty. So he used this course as an excuse to require the instructors who taught this course to go through a 45 hour professional development human relations training seminar, to get them to learn new ways to understand college students and learning principles and theory and more about psychosocial adjustment transitions and new communication and pedagogical strategies for undergraduate students. And his hope was, “Well, if you completed the professional development, you could use what you learned in the other things you did for students, you wouldn’t use them just in the University 101 course. So we established the finish, and that is alive and well 50 years later, nobody teaches this course without having gone through the training. And we’re still doing the training. And that is really the secret sauce to the success of this. And I can confidently predict over the next 50 years, we’re not going to give that up because we’ve seen what it can do. So the mission then of the University 101 program became really twofold: it was to develop students, but in order to develop the students we had to develop the faculty and staff who taught them in ways that they had not been developed in graduate school.

John K: One of the other things you talked about was how the success of the program was evaluated. Could you talk a little bit about what the results were in terms of the impact on student outcomes, in terms of student success?

John G: The founding president, to say the least, was rather controversial. And the university had tried to absorb 12 years of extraordinary change. And when he left the university to go to MIT to become their Executive VP for Research, we got an interim president for three years, and he made his hallmark for his interregnum, the idea of evaluating a number of the initiatives of his predecessor. We didn’t call that assessment then, but that’s exactly what it was. Matter of fact, the University of South Carolina has been really a forerunner and a pioneer in the assessment movement. So the new President, the first candidate he picked for evaluation was the President’s pet, and that was the University 101 course. And he announced this in the faculty senate meeting in September of 1974 and I was the brand new director of the course, and I was then untenured. So it was a shock to my system to know that what I had been asked to lead was about to be on the presidential evaluation chopping block. And so the university had to figure out how might you evaluate this. And they stipulated that I was not to do the evaluation because I was not objective about it, I was the leader of it. So what they did was they did a careful examination of what were the goals of the course. What were we telling students and their families and ourselves on the faculty and staff are the goals of the course and how might you measure the attainment of the goals? So we did a number of things. First of all, we developed a first time ever software adjustment in the university’s computing capacity to trace the proportion of first-year students who took University 101 to be able to compare them to students who didn’t take University 101, and we wanted to compare those two populations in terms of their predicted grade point averages, how well our algorithms were predicting they would do in the first-year of college versus how well they actually did. And we wanted to disaggregate the differences. We wanted to look at white students, black students, male students, female students, residential students, non-residential students, as many variables as we could think of to see who fared better than others. We also wanted to figure out what might the similarities and differences be between what students actually did, what were their behavioral choices in the first-year of college. And so we developed a survey that we administered in the required course for all students, first-year composition. University 101 was not a required course at that time, it was an elective. It’s still an elective, as a matter of fact, now it’s taken by about 85% of the first-year class, then less than 20. it was a very, very small population. There were about 275 students the first time we did it in 17 sections. But these questions we asked on the survey that we gave out in the freshman English class in which we did not tell the students who are taking the survey that the purpose of the survey was to evaluate the University 101 course, because we didn’t want there to be any kind of spillover halo effect. And so we asked them a whole set of questions about what did they know about the services that had been designed to help university students? And then we asked them which of these services had they used? And we asked them, what kind of groups had they joined? We asked them if they went to plays, concerts, lectures outside of class? We asked them about their relationships with their advisor. We asked them about the level of satisfaction and benefit they received in orientation. So we looked at all their answers, and we differentiated two populations. What did University 101 participants tell us? And what did the students tell us that hadn’t been in University 101, And, oh my God, we were shocked at the differences. The University 101 students were much more likely, not only to have known where to go get help, they actually went to get help. They were much more likely to have join groups. They’re more likely to have gone to extra co-curricular activities outside of class. And the biggest difference of all was that the students who elected to take this optional course, they had a lower predicted potential, meaning a lower predicted grade point average, which is a weighted factor of the high school rank in class and score on the SAT than students who didn’t take the course. In other words, the students who didn’t take the course were better prepared, and therefore we predicted they would have a higher grade point average and a higher persistence rate in the first year. What we found was exactly the opposite. The students with the lower predicted grade point average fared better and longer than the students with a higher predicted grade point average, they had higher retention rates. That was stunning, totally unanticipated. So of course, we wanted to know why… what explains this? Well, the explanations were in the things that students told us they were doing. And so we realized, if you do certain things for first-year students by design and not leaving it to chance, you’re more likely to get more of them to stay longer. One of the biggest takeaways of all was that the students who were initially predicting to do less well, it was a function of race and ethnicity. And we found that the gaps between how they were predicted to perform and how they actually performed were the greatest in the black students. And 50 years later, we’re still finding that the developmental changes and evolution of these students during, not only the first-year, but the undergraduate experience, that changes are greatest for the black students at the University of South Carolina. They are reporting the highest levels of involvement and engagement, which is astonishing, given the fact that it’s a predominantly white institution and the proportion of black students has been declining, I’m sad to say. And this is true of research universities all over the country where we are, perhaps unintentionally, I think some of us would say intentionally, re-segregating these organizations. So anyway, we learned a great deal about what you have to do to make first-year college students successful. And that body of research has been picked up and adopted by hundreds of other institutions now that do the same things we’re trying to do. They don’t always do them the same way. But they’ve got the same lessons. And so we know now what to do to make more students more successful in college, if we don’t leave it to chance.

John K: And by doing those things, you’re closing some of those equity gaps and providing more equitable rates of student success across all groups.

John G: Absolutely. We’re showing it can be done. There were pockets where we knew that before. As a matter of fact, when I learned about a campus before I visit a campus… I’ve been on 500 campuses, give or take, in my career… and generally the two highest performing groups on any campus are the honors population and, if the institution is so fortunate, students who participate in what are called TRIO programs, TRIO programs are provided by the federal government. There used to be three of them, hence, TRIO. There are now eight of them. But these are restricted to the criteria for eligibility, which has primarily revolved around Pell eligibility and financial means. And what we find is the lowest financial ability populations are doing as well as the honors populations who are disproportionately the more affluent middle, upper-middle class students. And why? …because in both those populations, they are getting levels of attention and support that the majority of students are not getting. So for any of us who cared to look, the TRIO programs were authorized in 1965. And we’ve known that if you do certain things for the students who are the least well advantaged, they are going to flourish. But we don’t do those things, many of us, for the majority of college students. Now at the University of South Carolina, that’s not true. We do all those things for all the students that want it. And most of them participate, about 85% of our first-year students have this, what we call, a First-Year Experience Program. So we know it can be done and American higher education just needs to be more intentional about doing that, has to have the will, the political will.

John K: And you mentioned visiting about 500 institutions, it sounds like this has spread quite a bit within the US and globally.

John G: It has, and the principal means for dissemination was a set of conferences that we began in 1982. And this is a really simple idea, but any of our listeners could do this. And when you really get immersed in something you’re doing in higher education, and you’re getting to know what students want and what they respond positively to, you look at that and you say, “What of this, could we tweak? What adjustment could we make? What are we not seeing that if we did something different, we could boost the outcomes.” And in my case, I looked at our higher ed enterprise in the early 80s and I thought if we wanted to learn more about first-year college students, and what colleges and universities were doing with them, and for them, how would you do that? There were no conferences, there was no literature base, no research, no journals, and I thought, “Damn, why don’t we just get people together to talk about this?” And so that was my rocket science idea. Why don’t we create a meeting to bring faculty academic administrators, state and Student Affairs people together? And we did such a meeting for the first time in 1982. And I want you to know that the state that sent the largest proportion of educators to that first national convening around the first-year experience was the state of New York. I thought, why was that the case? Well, hell, it snows up there, they want to get out of New York State in February to come down to South Carolina to see if we wear shoes in the winter and play golf, and I don’t care why they come down. As long as they come to the conference, they can do other things. Don’t blame them. And so we had a disproportionate representation of the colder climates in the United States when we started this work. We also had a significant contingent of Canadians who came to the initial meeting. Well, we’ve done 42 of these annual meetings since then, one a year, plus a lot of other meetings, and we founded a National Center at the University of South Carolina, it’s the National Resource Center for the first-year experience and students in transition. I founded that, actually, and left in 1999. But my successors have done a marvelous job with that. And when I left, I founded, with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, a new national organization that does not replicate the activities of the University of South Carolina. And we’re not offering a course, we don’t provide instruction, we’re not on a campus. But it is about focusing on the success of undergraduate students. Initially, your principal mechanism for espousing and disseminating this first-year experience concept was through a series of conferences. But, in addition, the other mechanism which has reached even more people is publishing, writing. In the higher ed community publishing is the currency of the realm. If you’re doing any legitimate work, you’ve got to write about it, and somebody’s got to want to read it, somebody’s got to publish it. And so my work, as it’s evolved, well actually long before I left University of South Carolina, has been significantly focused on publishing about this work, to get more people to read it and consider it, and decide how they could replicate it in their own fashion,

John K: With the success of these programs and with the training that’s often provided to faculty teaching them, those faculty often teach other classes, and the lessons learned in developing these classes and working with them have been spreading more widely throughout higher ed.

John G: Yeah, and that’s been documented. We wanted to know “Okay, you go through this training, you teach a first-year Seminar, do you use these pedagogies in any other context? Does it affect your attitudes towards students? Do you learn things that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?” I’ll give you an example of that. This may sound prurient, but I think it’s appropriate. We, America, the world, we discovered the AIDS epidemic in 1981 and nobody was prepared for that. But the thoughtful institutions, particularly research universities said, “Well, what can we do about this? This is killing people. And part of it’s a medical challenge, but it’s also a behavioral one, and what can we do in the realm of preventive medicine?” And so we decided that a purpose of the first-year seminar is to sustain and extend life and to help people lead lives of different qualities. And so we thought, “Okay, here in the conservative South Carolina, the students are not getting sex education in the public school system. What are we going to do when they come to university?” They are at their… not peak, but their prime of sexual activity. They have a lot of freedom, privacy, curiosity, creativity, and they’re in good health, but they’re doing things that are very unhealthy. They’re making poor decisions, health wise. So we in effect had to become educators in preventive health medicine, which we did, and that was transformative for our work and so It meant that the people who were teaching this course had to learn more about sex than they had ever known in order to facilitate the discussion and the absorption of the information that we were getting from our medical school and our public health, all those experts that universities have, that we put together an educational intervention like this to literally save people’s lives. And so that’s another function of these courses. The basic purpose of higher education is to help people live longer and healthier, and more fulfilling lives. And you got to lay the foundation of that in the first year to help people stop making stupid decisions.

John K: And we know that sometimes first-year students do make stupid decisions, as we know, from our own experiences, as well as what we’ve observed.

John G: Absolutely, yeah.

John K: And I think that’s a good note to wrap up on. We always end with the question: What’s next?

John G: I started a year ago, what you’re doing, I started a podcast series, and it’s called Office Hours with John Gardner. And I’m interested in one primary question, which is innovation in higher education. How do some people become innovators and what sustains them and what’s the impact? And so I’m going to take these interviews that I’ve been doing, and I’m going to convert them into some kind of book and hopefully develop theory around higher education innovation. So that’s going to be my next writing project. But my next crusade is around graduate school education. We made a tremendous contribution starting in the early 80s by looking at the first-year student experience. I’m working with a small group of colleagues right now to figure out how to launch a national set of conversations around the graduate student experience. And I want to do that because we’re losing huge numbers of graduate students who fall out of the pipelines. But the public’s largely unaware of this, because the federal government does not make institutions report that. It’s not in the domain of public data. And most families are more interested, understandably so, can I get my kid into undergraduate school, get them through undergraduate school, but now for many of them, undergraduate education is not enough. And we know that the same inequities that operate in undergraduate school, they are present in graduate education. And so we got to get more people who don’t look like me, and for whom graduate education was not designed, to flourish in graduate education. And graduate education is the most traditional component of university college life. We are more likely to be doing that the same way we’ve been doing it for several centuries than anything else we do. And so I’d like to do that. Another project is I’m working with the Association of Governing Boards on a model to get college and university trustees working in more partnership with higher education campus based leaders to better understand and support student success efforts. I’m doing a lot of work around transfer. The transfer outcomes, and our student outcomes in our country are shameful, and I should have started much earlier in my career. On that, 80% of entering community college students indicate that their ultimate goal is to earn a baccalaureate degree and only about 14% of them do. Shocking, shocking failure rates that if we were a hospital we would be shut down. So I got lots of things to work on, lots of needs in the academy. The academy is a wonderful environment. I’m privileged to work in it with people like you who are trying to disseminate the ideas and experiences of others to help our fellow educators. And I thank you for your role in that.

John K: Thank you for all the work that you’ve done in building programs that allow more of our students to be successful.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from you, John, thanks for sharing your stories with us.


John K: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.