PSU’s College of University Studies Opens Doors to Student Success

April 10th, 2006 by Adam

When Robert Fitzpatrick completed the high school version of the Choices® self-assessment program to help him better understand his interest areas, skill strengths and the types of jobs he might pursue to begin his professional career, the results indicated he might enjoy a career in the hospitality industry. As Fitzpatrick is very social, likes people, has an easy smile, and is always willing to lend a hand and provide guidance, it is easy to understand why the program would recommend this career choice for him.

While Fitzpatrick’s chosen career is quite different than the Choices recommendation, as Plymouth State University’s dean of the academic experience overseeing the new College of University Studies pilot program, he is in fact helping deciding students open doors that lead to their future success, both academically and professionally. The results are promising: by the end of its first semester more than half of the 50 students enrolled in the program had selected a major.

“The mission of the College of University Studies is to assist deciding students with the resources and personal attention needed to plot a course of action leading to graduation by the most effective route possible,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s about helping first-year students who haven’t decided on a major, and are therefore lacking an academic home and a social network of like-minded peers, make a connection with Plymouth State—to make them feel part of the institution.

“Deciding students want to keep their options open,” Fitzpatrick continues. “They are bright, intelligent young adults who have a lot of interests and like to experience different things. Our job is to guide them through the process of understanding what PSU has to offer and assist them in making choices that support persistence to a degree.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Virginia Barry adds, “We know national trends reflect that not feeling part of the community is a prime factor contributing to the dropout and/or transfer rate among students who don’t declare a major in their first year of college. For those that do stay enrolled, it often takes five or six years for them to receive their degree and significantly increases the cost of their education.

“To put it more simply, our goal is to help students who have not committed to an academic major to graduate in four years,” continues Provost Barry. “One of the simplest ways to promote this goal is to help them not only in their first year of college, but before they even arrive on campus.”

The 50 deciding first-year students who accepted the invitation to become part of the College of University Studies for the 2005-2006 academic year each received phone calls from Fitzpatrick during the summer of 2005 prior to their visit on campus to attend orientation. The phone calls enabled Fitzpatrick to find out their interests, advise them on appropriate course selection and affirm PSU was attuned to their needs and concerns. It was also an opportunity to connect with parents and educate them about the process.

During the fall semester, deciding students were asked to take time to study themselves by using assessment tools such as Choices, MAPP™ (Motivational Appraisal and Personal Potential) and a VIA Signature Strength Survey. They were also asked to review Bachelor of Arts degree and Bachelor of Science degree surveys, asking them to rate their level of interest in certain courses and majors.

Fitzpatrick says, “Each of the assessment tools gets the students thinking about their likes and dislikes, what their strengths are and provides them a snapshot of the areas of study and types of jobs that suit them best. This in turn allows us to provide developmental advising, helping them select courses that match their goals and aspirations, as well as contribute to general education requirements. We definitely don’t tell students what to major in. Instead, we give them advice as they make their own decisions and try to make sure every course they take counts toward their degree requirements. For those that have already selected a major, we serve as a bridge to the academic department, helping connect them with the right faculty.”

Students enrolled in the College of University Studies complete their advising and course planning well in advance of registration. This enables the students to immediately register for classes when the online registration system is activated, and if a class is full, already have alternate courses selected. Taking the right classes at the right time supports the goal of completing a degree in four years, and saves students money.

Notes Fitzpatrick, “One third of our student population are first-generation college students. There is an expectation and an obligation to help students develop a plan so they finish in four years. I believe most families can’t afford the unexpected costs of extra semesters. That’s why the developmental advising is such an important component of the process.”

Other characteristics of the program helping to connect students to one another and the institution is the fact that they all live in the same residence hall. Additionally, the College of Undergraduate Studies publishes a monthly newsletter with student profiles, tips for success—such as recognizing when they need help and then asking for that help—and program news and updates. The newsletter is posted online and also mailed to parents, making them aware of the services available and advising them on the kinds of questions to be asking their sons/daughters.

“We are pleased with the results of the pilot program thus far,” says Provost Barry, “and the students appreciate knowing someone at PSU cares about their success. Success breeds success and eventually we want to be a resource to every deciding student.” Next year 70 deciding students will be invited to participate in the College of University Studies.

The College of University Studies was born out of Plymouth State University’s participation in Foundations of Excellence© in the First College Year, coordinated by the Policy Center on the First Year of College. PSU was one of only 12 institutions nationwide to participate as a founding member in this assessment program, which focuses on best practices for student success in the first year of college.

While there is a well established national trend of first year experience programs, Foundations of Excellence, along with a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, helped frame the scope and focus for developing a similar program at PSU. The College of University Studies “triangle,” as Fitzpatrick refers to it, is proactive developmental advising, community building and a physical space deciding students can identify as uniquely theirs. Fitzpatrick says two of the three are already in place. A permanent home for the College will come in 2007 when it moves from its current location in Frost Academic Commons to the first floor of PSU’s historic Mary Lyon Hall, following its closure next year for renovation and technological upgrades.

For more information, visit PSU’s College of University Studies online at, contact the Dean of the Academic Experience Bob Fitzpatrick at (603) 535-2626 or Professor Matthew Rolph at 603-535-3253.

Plymouth State University (PSU) is a regional comprehensive university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. PSU offers 42 majors and 62 minors in programs that include education, business, humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences. The College of Graduate Studies offers coursework that promotes research, best practices and reflection in locations on- and off-campus as well as online. For non-traditional students, PSU’s Frost School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers working professionals opportunities to pursue an undergraduate degree by attending classes in the evenings, weekends and online. Located in a beautiful New England setting, Plymouth State University has been recognized as one of the “Best in the Northeast” by The Princeton Review.