Remembering the Days — Sink or Swim: the freshman lifesaver course

Remembering the Days, episode 50

Fifty years ago, it wasn't uncommon to hear professors give the "look to your left, look to your right — one of you will have failed by the end of the semester" speech. But exactly 50 years ago, Carolina tried something different: a course designed to help freshmen feel like they belonged along with the academic tools they needed to succeed. It was called University 101, and it became model for hundreds of colleges across the country.


“Welcome to the first day of class. This is one of the most difficult courses in the entire university, so look to your left, then look to your right. The students on either side of you probably won’t be here by the end of the semester because, traditionally, two-thirds of my students will flunk!” Professor laughs demonically.

Depending on when you were in college, it’s possible you heard some variation of that speech — OK, probably without the demonic laughter — but, you know what I mean, the old ‘sink or swim’ motivational talk from a professor who possibly did not care if you sank or swam.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back 50 years ago to a pivotal moment when the University of South Carolina launched an experimental course called University 101 that ultimately helped change the way that colleges and universities everywhere thought about their freshman students.

But let’s back up for a moment. What prompted Carolina to create University 101 a half century ago? Remember, there was a lot going on back then that had students on edge: The Vietnam War was grinding on, and no one wanted to drop out of college and get drafted. On top of that, Carolina’s enrollment had grown exponentially in a very short time, and a lot of students felt like the campus had become impersonal.

There were other factors as well — you can listen to the episode Month of May, 1970 as a refresher — and everything came to a breaking point in May 1970 when students stormed the Osborne Administration Building. The National Guard was called in to quell the riot with tear gas. In the aftermath of that tumult, the university’s president Tom Jones imagined a different paradigm — one in which Carolina would treat its students, especially its freshmen, like VIPs. And that was radical thinking back then.

John Gardner, 2nd: That was a remarkable statement for USC to make, because I tell you what, in 1974, most colleges were not saying freshmen are VIPs. They were saying bring them in and flunk them out. You know, it was just a churn. And the whole idea was to measure your institutional quality by how rigorous and tough and demanding you were. And you didn't want to keep all the students you brought in. And, you know, we thought, this is ridiculous. You've said these people are qualified. You've admitted them. You've taken their hopes and their dreams and their money, and you need to do as much as you possibly can for them. And so the real USC message here was that first-year students are VIPs, very important people. 

That’s John Gardner, the professor who was put in charge of launching University 101 in 1972. The course that he and others put together was designed to do things like familiarize freshmen with the library, tutoring services and other student support programs. But, perhaps more importantly, it became a space for students to make connections with each other and develop a sense of belonging. Another benefit was that it helped faculty members better understand their fledgling students.

To spread the word about the new course, Gardner launched an annual conference called The Freshman Year Experience. Representatives from hundreds of colleges and universities attended those conferences, and after studying Carolina’s U101 course, they started their own versions of it.

Gardner also established the Center for the Freshman Year Experience, which, in the years since, has done a lot of research on what makes first-year students tick and how to help them succeed. The University of South Carolina basically became the pioneer in thinking about freshmen and the peculiar challenges they face in their first year of college.

Dan Friedman: And that idea has now spread across the world, really. But in the United States, we know that 74% of colleges and universities offer some form of first-year seminar, many of which are based on what's called the South Carolina model.

That’s Dan Friedman, the current director of University 101, and did you catch what he said about the South Carolina model? This university, our U101 course, became the model for hundreds of other institutions.

Dan Friedman: Really this is not about helping students survive college. It's about thriving at the university, how do they make the most of their four very short years? And so I think the honorable, respectful thing to do with the talent that you have is to invest in it. So you see Fortune 500 companies do that. The military does that. Any good organization is going to invest in the people that it has. And part of that is an intentional onboarding experience so that they can understand how to make that transition into that environment. 

One of the reasons for investing in freshman success is practical. It costs less for colleges to recruit qualified students and keep them for the sophomore, junior and senior years than to recruit them and then watch many of them fail for lack of support. So how exactly has U101 helped freshmen succeed over the years?

Dan Friedman: We have known for 50 years that students that take the course come back for their sophomore year at significantly higher rates, but nobody had been able to answer why. So what is it about that experience that leads them to stay? And so first thing I did when I got here was a research study that looked into that. And what we found was that the No. 1 predictor of a student's decision to stay was a sense of belonging. 

When the U101 course was offered at Carolina in the 1970s, all of the sections were taught by faculty or staff members. Today, the instructors are assisted by students called peer leaders — they’re either juniors or seniors who took U101 as freshmen and have excelled in their studies. I talked to a couple of peer leaders about what they do to promote a sense of belonging with their U101 classes. Here’s Sully Hutto, a senior majoring in psychology.

Sully Hutto: I think people often are emotionally driven. So if you give them something to feel good about and give them an experience that's rewarding to them, then they're so much more likely to continue. So if they start off their time at Carolina that first fall semester by learning what are the traditions at USC? What do we value? Who are we? What do we think you should be as a Carolinian? And those are all things we walk through with them as part of our curriculum in addition to academic resources and all that stuff. But that is hardwired into U101.

Yasmin Balogun is a rising senior who plans to go to medical school. She says the U101 course turns confident freshmen into solid sophomores.

Yasmen Balogun: I think just that self confidence that comes from that is really important. I think it would be missing in a lot of freshmen without U101, because that's the one space where I know for sure you can get it. And it's a course, like everything else, you take it two or three times a week, you have it for sure for that first semester.

So next time you’re talking to someone about college freshmen, remember that 50 years ago the University of South Carolina was the trailblazer in creating University 101. It’s why the university is ranked so highly today for its first-year student programs.

Next time on Remembering the Days, we’re going to revisit a myth that was spawned 54 years ago about the naming of the University’s Capstone House residence hall. It’s a fun story that you’ll want to hear.

Until then, I’m Chris Horn, see you in a couple of weeks and forever to thee.

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