Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Going beyond the First-Year Seminar to Increase Student Satisfaction

Culver, K. C., and Bowman, N. A. 2020. “Is What Glitters Really Gold? A Quasi-Experimental Study of First-Year Seminars and College Student Success.” Research in Higher Education.


The purpose of this study was to assess the impact of participation in first-year seminars on student success outcomes of interest, namely college satisfaction, grades, retention and four-year graduation rates. The design of the study allowed researchers to account for the biases often introduced by student self-selection effects. Subgroup analyses allowed the authors to draw conclusions about students based on a host of demographic characteristics.

This study used propensity score methods through which the authors designated a control group that was extremely similar to the treatment group with a single difference: the treatment group participated in a first-year seminar. This method allowed the authors to draw robust conclusions about two questions: What is the impact of participation in first-year seminars on outcomes of interest? Would these outcomes have been achieved by students who did not participate in first-year seminars?

The authors also weighted the data to account for random sampling at larger institutions, non-response bias, race, sex, and standardized test scores. The authors examined a host of characteristics, such as academic motivation, inclination to engage in cognitively challenging activities, socially responsible leadership, and graduate school aspirations. As a result of these rigorous methods, the study’s findings were more reliable and convincing than much of the available literature.


If retention is the focus, first-year seminars designed to teach students soft-learning skills related to transition to college may not be the answer. First-year seminars appear to increase student satisfaction with college, especially among Black students, but have no impact on retention, graduation, grades, or fourth-year satisfaction. More comprehensive programs, extending beyond the first year, may be the best way to think about resource allocation for students. Focusing on the nuances of the institutions and involving focused and comprehensive advising would be more beneficial. Experimental evidence in this regard has been documented and replicated: See, for example, this summary or the full paper.

That said, first-year seminars that focused on the transition to college did help Black students feel more satisfied with their first-year experience and earn higher grades—both of which have been linked to a sense of belonging. This is no simple task as institutions continue to struggle with designing contexts where students feel a strong sense of belonging. Integrating these ideas with longer term, multi-year success strategies remain a critical step for helping minoritized students feel satisfied with and connected to their college experiences.


First-year student seminars frequently fail to fulfill campus leaders’ expectations of them. One of the only discernable patterns that emerged from the data and that appeared to predict stronger outcomes was when first-year seminars were integrated into broader, more comprehensive initiatives aimed at student success, such as those that included tutoring, strong academic advising, and financial aid advising. Therefore, campus leaders may wish to ensure that these wraparound services are strongly connected to the first-year seminar experience. Furthermore, in an era where finding resources is an online search away, seminars may be more effective when geared toward skill development and stimulating the actual use of these services rather than merely disseminating information about them. Campus leaders may wish to carefully examine the learning outcomes of current first-year seminars and ensure that they align with practical, skill-building approaches that make use of wraparound services, which are then linked to more comprehensive programs that go beyond the first-year experience.


K.C. Culver is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.

Nicholas Bowman is the Mary Louise Peterson Chair in Higher Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies at the University of Iowa.


Keup, J. R., and Young, D. G. 2018. “Investigating the First-Year Seminar as a High-Impact Practice.” In R. S. Feldman (Ed.), The First Year of College: Research, Theory, and Practice on Improving the Student Experience and Increasing Retention: 93–125. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Swaner, L. E., and Brownell, J. E. 2010. Outcomes of High Impact Practices for Underserved Students: A Review of the Literature. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.