down arrowMenu

Higher Learning Commission Accreditation Review


Institutional Commitment to Special Emphasis
Foundations of Excellence® (FoE)
Definition of First-Year Student
Task Force Methodology

University of Northern Iowa demonstrated its commitment to providing an outstanding educational experience and student success in the first year through its participation in the Foundations of Excellence® Self-Study, which involved a comprehensive evaluation of the first year of college using the process developed by the Policy Center on the First Year of College.


Institutional Commitment to Special Emphasis

In fall 2007, the University began a discussion across the academic and student affairs divisions about the possibility of participating in the Foundations of Excellence® (FoE) process to evaluate the first college year.  Also during this time, we began discussing our HLC self-study process.  The University decided that conducting a special emphasis self-study by participating in the Foundations of Excellence® as part of the its reaffirmation of accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission would be an excellent choice in view our dedication to undergraduate education.


UNI then applied to participate in the Foundations of Excellence® project by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, and was admitted to the program in February 2008.  The Higher Learning Commission granted the University permission to conduct a special emphasis self-study using the Foundations of Excellence® in May 2008.  Participation in the FoE process was fully supported by the President, Interim Provost, and the Cabinet.  The project was then publicized through a campus-wide town hall meeting on accreditation and the Foundations of Excellence® process and a call for volunteers was issued.  The project garnered wide support from campus constituents, which is best illustrated by the large number of faculty, staff, and students (more than 200) who volunteered to participate in the Foundations of Excellence® and Higher Learning Commission Steering Committees. 


The Foundations of Excellence® special emphasis focused on the question “How can we improve the experience of our first-year students?”  More specifically, itcentered on enhancing student engagement and learning.  Student engagement and learning are driven by two factors: the individual efforts of students and the educational practices of institutions.  Effective educational practices that enhance student engagement lead to improved satisfaction, learning, and persistence.[1]  As an aspirational model, the Foundations of Excellence® process focuses on institutional practices, rather than student efforts, to improve student engagement and success during the first year.  While the purpose of the project is much broader than improving retention rates, retention should rise as student engagement and learning improves.


Participation in the Foundations of Excellence® process enabled UNI to achieve the larger goal of developing benchmarks for student learning in the first year that will guide institutional decisions and actions about the entire college experience.  Additionally, the self-study assures that UNI considers learning outcomes in the broader context of institutional improvement.  This process contributes to both a culture of continuous improvement and to the alignment of institutional mission, goals, and intended outcomes. 


Back to Top

Foundations of Excellence® (FoE)foundations of excellence emblem

The Foundations of Excellence® process involved a comprehensive, guided self-study of the first college year, providing for a systematic assessment of institutional strengths and weaknesses.  The framework for the Foundations of Excellence® self-study process was nine Foundational Dimensions that, as an aspirational model, provide general guidelines for intentionally designing an optimum first-year experience for students.  UNI used the Dimensions and their related performance indicators to conduct a structured assessment of the first year as a way to promote improvement in student success and learning.  The Dimensions rest on four assumptions:

  • The academic mission of the institution is preeminent.
  • The first college year is central to the achievement of the institution’s mission and lays the foundation on which undergraduate education is built.
  • Systematic evidence provides validation of the Dimensions.
  • Collectively, the Dimensions constitute an ideal for improving not only the first college year, but also the entire undergraduate experience.

The nine Dimensions are described below, as articulated by the Policy Center on the First Year of College.[2] 



Foundations Institutions approach the first year in ways that are intentional and based on a philosophy/rationale of the first year that informs relevant institutional policies and practices.  The philosophy/rationale is explicit, clear and easily understood, consistent with the institutional mission, widely disseminated, and, as appropriate, reflects a consensus of campus constituencies.  The philosophy/rationale is also the basis for first-year organizational policies, practices, structures, leadership, department/unit philosophies, and resource allocation.



Foundations Institutions create organizational structures and policies that provide a comprehensive, integrated, and coordinated approach to the first year.  These structures and policies provide oversight and alignment of all first-year efforts.  A coherent first-year experience is realized and maintained through effective partnerships among academic affairs, student affairs, and other administrative units and is enhanced by ongoing faculty and staff development activities and appropriate budgetary arrangements.



Foundations Institutions deliver intentional curricular and co-curricular learning experiences that engage students in order to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors consistent with the desired outcomes of higher education and the institution’s philosophy and mission.  Whether in or out of the classroom, learning also promotes increased competence in critical thinking, ethical development, and the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.



Foundations Institutions make the first college year a high priority for the faculty.  These institutions are characterized by a culture of faculty responsibility for the first year that is realized through high-quality instruction in first-year classes and substantial interaction between faculty and first-year students both inside and outside the classroom.  This culture of responsibility is nurtured by chief academic officers, deans, and department chairs and supported by the institutions’ reward systems.



Foundations Institutions facilitate appropriate student transitions through policies and practices that are intentional and aligned with institutional mission.  Beginning with recruitment and admissions and continuing through the first year, institutions communicate clear curricular and co-curricular expectations and provide appropriate support for educational success.  They are forthright about their responsibilities to students as well as students' responsibilities to themselves and the institution.  They create and maintain curricular alignments with secondary schools and linkages with secondary school personnel, families, and other sources of support, as appropriate.


All Students:

Foundations Institutions serve all first-year students according to their varied needs.  The process of anticipating, diagnosing, and addressing needs is ongoing and is subject to assessment and adjustment throughout the first year.  Institutions provide services with respect for the students’ abilities, backgrounds, interests, and experiences.  Institutions also ensure a campus environment that is inclusive and safe for all students.



Foundations Institutions ensure that all first-year students experience diverse ideas, worldviews, and cultures as a means of enhancing their learning and preparing them to become members of pluralistic communities.  Whatever their demographic composition, institutions structure experiences in which students interact in an open and civil community with people from backgrounds and cultures different from their own, reflect on ideas and values different from those they currently hold, and explore their own cultures and the cultures of others.


Roles and Purposes:

Foundations Institutions promote student understanding of the various roles and purposes of higher education, both for the individual and society.  These roles and purposes include knowledge acquisition for personal growth, learning to prepare for future employment, learning to become engaged citizens, and learning to serve the public good.  Institutions encourage first-year students to examine systematically their motivation and goals with regard to higher education in general and to their own college/university.  Students are exposed to the value of general education as well as to the value of more focused, in-depth study of a field or fields of knowledge (i.e., the major).




Foundations Institutions conduct assessment and maintain associations with other institutions and relevant professional organizations in order to achieve ongoing first-year improvement.  This assessment is specific to the first year as a unit of analysis—a distinct time period and set of experiences, academic and otherwise, in the lives of students.  It is also linked systemically to the institutions’ overall assessment.  Assessment results are an integral part of institutional planning, resource allocation, decision making, and ongoing improvement of programs and policies as they affect first-year students.  As part of the enhancement process and as a way to achieve ongoing improvement, institutions are familiar with current practices at other institutions as well as with research and scholarship on the first college year.


Back to Top

Definition of First-Year Student

For the purpose of this study, “First-Year Student” is defined as a student enrolled who has completed fewer than 30 semester hours of credit who would otherwise be defined as a “freshman” under the University system for determining grade level.  Additionally, those students who completed college courses at other colleges and universities were included in the study provided they entered the University with fewer than 30 semester hours of transferable credit. 



Back to Top

Task Force Methodology

A campus-wide task force made up of faculty, staff, and students contributed to the FoE process at UNI.  To emphasize collaboration between the academic affairs and student affairs divisions, the FoE Task Force and each Foundational Dimension committee was co-chaired by a representative from the academic and student affairs divisions.


Using the FoE process,[3] the Task Force initially undertook an evaluation of the first year at UNI by completing a Current Practices Inventory (CPI), which was a compilation of practices, policies, and other data related to the first year (see Appendix J - Current Practices Inventory Tables).  Then two separate FoEsurveys, administered by Educational Benchmarking Incorporated, were conducted for faculty and staff[4] and first-year students;[5] 1,070 faculty and staff (or 49.7%) and 1,130 new first year students (or 37.6%) completed the surveys.  Both quantitative and qualitative data analysis (coding open-ended responses; see Appendices K & L - Open-Ended Charts from faculty/staff & student surveys) of the surveys provided a fuller picture than just relying on any one indicator or anecdotal evidence.  In addition, other institutional data (e.g., National Survey of Student Engagement or NSSE; Faculty Survey of Student Engagement or FSSE; Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress or MAPP) were used in the evaluation.  Analysis of course syllabi and other university documents provided added context for making conclusions (see Appendix M - Evidence Library list) for a complete list of documents and data used by the task force).


The Dimension review committees, comprised of faculty, staff, and students, used this wide array of

data to complete an analysis of key performance indicators for each of the nine Foundational Dimensions.  Each review committee produced final reports, condensed versions of which make up the following chapters.  The Policy Center on the First College Year provided consultation throughout the self-study process, and their feedback has been incorporated into the final reports.


Please note that the committee reports in the following chapters have been edited for consistency and clarity.  The full committee reports, without recommendations, are available for review on the Web.[6]  The complete committee recommendations can be found in Appendix N - Action Item List.


Information related to the Foundations of Excellence® has been produced with the permission of the Policy Center on the First Year of College. The rights to use the Foundational Dimensions and related performance indicators were purchased by the University of Northern Iowa and may not be disseminated to other institutions. The content of this section was produced from materials obtained from the Policy Center on the First College Year.