UWRF suspends programs meant to help students adjust to college

Posted May 10, 2020

Two successful programs at UW-River Falls designed to help students ease into the demands of college and boost retention have been suspended due to budget cuts.

In late February, the university’s Faculty Senate approved suspending the First Year Adventure and Pathways programs. The senate’s vote was merely a formality after the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), home to both programs, could not afford to fund them for the coming academic year.

The First Year Adventure program, implemented in 2016, was designed to help freshman CAS students adapt to the challenges of university course work. The program’s central goal was to keep students in school, according to Dean Yohnk, dean of the college. He said it was successful, increasing retention by approximately 2-4 percent per freshman class.

The Pathways program was designed to help students who likely would struggle with the college environment because English is not their first language. As a result, they often have lower scores on the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions. Pathways began in 2015 and served 12-16 students per year. Students enrolled in Pathways tend to be minorities whose educational backgrounds result in issues adjusting to the rigorous standards of a fast-paced college course load. Like with the First Year Adventure program, the goal of Pathways was to increase retention and educational opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds.

Both programs incurred significant financial burdens. According to university budget proposals, the First Year Adventure program requested $73,000 for funding for the 2020-2021 academic year. The combined expense to operate both programs would be $152,250. That’s too much for the College of Arts and Sciences alone to afford, according to Yohnk.

“The university should have a first-year seminar and the university should have a way to have a Pathways entry program for students who do not have English as their first language and have lower ACT scores,” Yohnk said. “It’s been the responsibility of one college to try to foot the bill. I believe that the university has to determine whether there is funding across the board for these important programs.”

Financial challenges are not new for the College of Arts and Sciences. Budget cuts to the UW-System were in place from 2011-2017 resulting in the Poynter Institute’s fact-checking website Politifact describing Wisconsin state support for its university system as “in a historic decline.” Yohnk said that CAS has lost approximately 25 faculty positions over the last decade. Replacing faculty members has become increasingly more difficult. Arts and Sciences budgets continue to be stretched thin and using approximately 20 percent of its budget on these two programs is something that the college can’t afford to do, according to Yohnk.

Yohnk said that to keep the two retention-focused programs for freshmen, CAS would have to give up three faculty positions in other college programs. Currently three academic departments are advertising for new faculty positions and would have to stop their searches.

According to Yohnk, neither of the programs should be funded by his college alone. Half of the students in Pathways are in the College of Business and Economics, Yohnk said. “Both Pathways and first-year seminars are important. The university itself has to carefully look at do we value these enough to fund them from the central budget.”

For some students like Nasra Ahmed, a junior studying criminology, the Pathways program provided a route to college that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.

“I wasn’t going to go to college,” Ahmed said. “Part of it was because I thought I wasn’t going to get the help I needed, and I was just going to drop out halfway. I didn’t want to do it.”

College wasn’t in her future until she met Pedro Renta, a recruiter for the UWRF Admissions Office. Renta visited Ahmed’s high school, where he introduced the university to the students and helped get Ahmed involved with the Pathways program.

When Ahmed found out that the Pathways program wasn’t going to continue being funded, she said she couldn’t help but think about students in similar situations to her own. When she was involved with Pathways in the fall of 2017, she learned how to write better papers, adjust to the college environment and pick the major that would suit her best.

“I’m angry in a way, because I think there is someone else out there that is just like me,” Ahmed said. “‘I’m not going to go to college, I’m not going to get extra help.’ Knowing now that UW-River Falls isn’t going to give extra help that other people need makes me sad for the school.”

Yohnk indicated there is a much better chance that the Pathways program could be funded by UWRF than the First Year Adventure program. FYA, as it’s known, would be significantly more expensive because it would include the entire freshman class in all four colleges at the university.

Ahmed said she recognizes the value of both programs and wants to see UWRF do everything it can to expedite their return.

“Find a way to keep the program. I’m still on track to graduate next spring,” Ahmed said. “I wouldn’t be here or wouldn’t have studied abroad if I didn’t get the opportunity to come here (because of Pathways). It does help people.”