FoE implementation: Undergraduate studies program

October 5, 2012  

In the near future, more students may be admitted to Purdue's Undergraduate Studies Program, following on one of the main recommendations from the Foundations of Excellence process.

Now, approximately 10 percent of incoming Purdue students are undecided on a major and enter USP.

Once those students go through USP, the vast majority find their future career path. The program lasts up to two years and puts students through various tests and classes to help determine their most apt career path.

"When students leave us, 90 percent of them never change their mind about their major," says Susan Aufderheide, director of the Undergraduate Studies Program. Aufderheide is one of five members of the Foundations of Excellence implementation team designed to align the University's resources to enhance a student's first-year experience.

USP could benefit a majority of freshmen, Aufderheide says, and other members of the FoE task force agree. One of their primary recommendations involves adopting a hybrid model of admission in which a significantly larger number of students would be admitted to USP, reducing the number of first-year students admitted directly to a specific bachelor's degree program.

Many first-year students are unaware of their options and have yet to narrow their scope to a single major, says Dennis Minchella, co-chair of the FoE Organization Dimension Committee, which put forth the recommendation. At Purdue, 11 percent of students change their major within the first year, and overall, nearly 40 percent will switch at least once in their academic career.

"If more students were encouraged to explore their academic options before choosing a major, we would reduce the time to degree and improve retention," says Minchella, associate dean in the College of Science and professor of biological sciences. "Our current model leads to high numbers of students who leave particular colleges with courses that don't count toward their new area of study, and the CODO (Change of Degree Objective) process takes a toll on student self-esteem."

In the first semester of USP, students take a three-credit exploratory course that is designed to allow students the chance to discover who they are and what they care about.

"During the course they explore themselves, their interests, their skills, their abilities, and their values," Aufderheide says. "They take a whole battery of assessments. They look at different majors on campus and the different types of careers out there, and we try to make sure there is a nice match when they make their decision."

If more students were admitted to USP, the exploratory course might be re-examined and could expand from 28 sections to 44 offered each fall. The size of the class sections will need to remain consistent with the current standards, as the low student-to-teacher/advisor ratio is one of the keys to its success.

USP also is exploring a name change, Aufderheide says, to better reflect what the program does for students.

Another major FoE recommendation -- supporting the implementation and expansion of a common core that is easily portable across majors -- also will benefit undeclared students. Currently, freshman composition is the only course required for all Purdue students. With the common core, undeclared students should have a larger set of courses that count across all the majors they are exploring.

"If the core curriculum is really portable, having 30 hours that will count no matter where you move will be very helpful," Aufderheide says.

Aufderheide says the addition of exploratory courses focused on specific majors would further assist all first-year students in making informed decisions as to the area of study they want to pursue.

"I think our culture has always been that we want to get you out of here as quickly as you can, which is why we have you talk to us about what it is you're interested in," Aufderheide says. "The cultural shift has to happen at the University level, and we have to embrace exploratory students and give them access to courses that help them figure out whether or not it's a good fit for them."

Aufderheide would like to dispel the idea that students who enroll in USP are low-performing students. They're actually the opposite, she says.

"We have many high-ability students," Aufderheide says. "Because when you can do everything, how do you choose the one thing you're going to do? We have to get over that barrier that starting out undecided is a negative, but rather a positive."

 If students find the right fit for them academically, many other aspects of university life go more smoothly.

"I think you will see an overall increase in student satisfaction with their majors, faculty will get to see students who are more engaged and the students will probably be performing a little bit better," Aufderheide says.

 Writers: Brian Peloza and Valerie O'Brien, 49-49573,

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