Undergraduate Academic Affairs

April 24, 2018

First-year Interest Groups celebrate 30 years of shaping student experience

Bryan Nakata

Lovenoor Aulk presents his data

Dr. Lovenoor Aulk presents his data to UAA staff at the 30-year anniversary celebration of Freshman Interest Groups. According to his team’s study, FIGS increase the graduation rates for undergraduate students, especially those in the underrepresented demographic. Photo by Bryan Nakata.

Among this year’s milestones for Undergraduate Academic Affairs is the 30th anniversary of First-Year Interest Groups, formerly known as Freshman Interest Groups. To mark the occasion, First Year Programs hosted an event marked by lively conversations between attendees led by FIG leaders, a faculty panel discussion and a presentation of a recent study that demonstrates the FIG program’s impact on undergraduate student persistence through to graduation.

First Year Programs created FIGs in 1987 as a way for students to find a smaller, more connected community within the large university. In FIGs, a cluster of courses are linked with peer instructors, who are typically upperclassmen who help guide the new students through the university setting. These 2-credit general studies courses have continued expanding since its inception, starting as four clusters and growing to more than 150 today: About 48% of first-year students enroll in a FIG.

For the anniversary, new data was released on FIGs by the UW DataLab, which demonstrated just how integral FIGs have been for the UW. The study was led by Lovenoor Aulk, a Ph.D. student in informatics science, and looked at an estimated 58,000 students between 1998 and 2018.

Results of the research showed that students who participated in FIGs have a higher chance of re-enrollment compared to their counterparts: 94% of students who participated in FIGs re-enrolled the following quarter, 3% higher than those not in FIGs.

This trend was also reflected in graduation rates; those who participated in the FIG program saw a 6% increase in the likelihood of graduating within 6 years. The greatest impact was shown with underrepresented student demographics.

“When looking at underrepresented students, the differences are huge,” Aulk said at the event while presenting his team’s findings. “There’s a 14% difference in graduation rates — [that’s] double digits.”

FIG students gathering 1997

Archive photo of students gathering for their FIGs, circa 1997. Photo Courtesy First Year Programs at the University of Washington.

For the University of Washington, which is already 30% above the national average for six-year graduation rates, the impact FIGs have for underrepresented students is increasing in importance. Students from this demographic graduate at lower rates than their peers, and FIGs increase their chances greatly. In addition, since 2006 the enrollment of underrepresented and international students rose by 6% and 13%, respectively. This means that more students of color are coming to the school and will look to the program to help them navigate their first quarter.

For both international and minority students, it can be especially challenging to connect with others during their first year. Nearly half of students in the study said that FIGs succeeded most by helping them make friends and find community.

“There was a different energy because they were walking in [to class] together,” said panelist Dr. Andrea Carroll, senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. “You can see that community feeling… that’s huge.”

On the other side, the program is an opportunity for older students to practice teaching skills and make valuable connections. One such student, Alyssa Eckroth, enjoyed teaching her FIG so much that she is already preparing for another one next fall.

“I had one student come up to me and say ‘this is the best class I’ve ever taken,” Eckroth said. “It made my heart feel warm.”

Whether the focus is on graduation rates, peer-led courses or student experience, the FIG program has positively shaped our university — and will continue to do so in years to come.

“First Year Programs’ mission is really to think about strategic programming for all undergraduate students: freshman, transfer, first generation, low income and international students,” LeAnne Wiles, director of First Year Programs said at the event. “To think about how they can strategically plug into the university and aim to have a smoother transition while they’re here.”

The FIG program is one way — and a successful one at that — to achieve that smooth transition for new students.