As student retention and graduation rates continue to be of increasing concern to universities across the country, Northern Arizona University has taken a significant step to transform the first-year experience for its students.

Beginning this fall, all freshmen automatically will be routed through NAU’s newly formed University College, an initiative that provides new students with the framework they need to thrive academically.

The college brings a variety of academic programs into one academic unit to help students succeed as they transition into the university, said Karen Pugliesi, vice provost for Academic Affairs, who is leading the new initiative.

“If we can help first-year students understand the university environment and our expectations of them, they will be better equipped to develop effective learning habits and make better-informed decisions about their futures,” she said.

The new college will encompass first-year learning, academic transition and support, and academic and career advising. According to Pugliesi, the college is identifying courses and professors who will have a strong focus on teaching first-year courses and mentoring first-year students.

The University College will sponsor the First Year Learning Initiative, co-directed by Michelle Miller and Blase Scarnati. The initiative promotes high expectations and rigorous academic engagement supported by course designs that guide students and provide early and frequent feedback. The First Year Learning Iniative will be based at the college, but will extend to courses in all colleges.

University College also will sponsor the courses offered through the Lumberjack Mathematics Center. Based on a successful project at Virginia Tech, the center will use technology in innovative ways to help students learn at their own pace. Students at the center also receive individual attention from faculty and other instructional staff.

“It is critical that incoming first-year students understand clearly what is expected, how to be successful and how to adapt to a university academic experience,” Pugliesi said. “The University College will build a strong foundation for growth and achievement.”

NAU will place a strong emphasis on measuring how effective University College is in its efforts related to academic success and student retention. “Through continuous evaluation, we can find out how to improve and make the changes we need to help students as we move forward,” Pugliesi said.

Information about University College is available online at nau.edu/uc.