Presidential Scholars Theses (1990 – 2006)


Open Access Presidential Scholars Thesis

First Advisor

Kent Sandstrom


As colleges and universities have become increasingly competitive in their recruitment and retention of students, they have placed greater emphasis on the quality of the freshman experience. The nature of this experience serves as the focus of this study. This paper draws upon qualitative data about the perceptions and expectations of students beginning their first year of enrollment at the University of Northern Iowa. In doing so, it examines students' expectations and perceptions regarding their (1) prospective academic workload, (2) relationships with faculty, (3) relationships with peers, and ( 4) co-curricular involvements. While this study examines only the University of Northern Iowa, it offers findings that may have broader benefits. As Thompson and Fretz (1991, p. 446) observed, "findings from individual institutions have value in helping to explain behaviors that may be particular to inhabitants of that institution and consequently, useful on the campus wide level".

The University of Northern Iowa is a mid-sized state university located in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In the Fall semester of 1997, undergraduate enrollment totaled 11, 654, while graduate student enrollment totaled 1,454. Women comprised 58.5% of the student population. A total of 1,957 students entered in the Fall semester of 1997, making up 16.8% of total undergraduate enrollment. Of these new students, 94.8% entered as Iowa residents. Based on total undergraduate enrollment, 4% of students were classified as ethnic minorities, including 2% Black students, and the remaining 2% were categorized as Asian, Hispanic and American Indian students (Wyatt & Carlson, 1997).

Because most attrition takes place between students' freshman and sophomore years of college (Beal & Noel, 1980), a close examination of the freshman year experience provides insight into students' adjustment process, and their resulting decisions of whether or not to continue attending an institution. Of the 2,012 new freshman students who enrolled in the Fall semester of 1996, 92.4% returned in the following Spring semester of 1997, and 82.0% returned a year after enrollment in the fall of 1997 (Wyatt & Carlson, 1997).

Upon acceptance to UNI, 91.5% of the new freshmen students entering in the Fall of 1997 attended one of the two-day orientation sessions during June and July. At these sessions, they registered for classes, met current students and staff, toured the campus and residence halls, interacted with other incoming students, and were introduced to many of the University's services. These students then began Fall semester classes in mid-August. These initial activities constitute students' first experiences with the university, and provide a starting point for the individuals in this project.

In this study, I examine 1) the perceptions and expectations that these students carried with them into their first semester of classes and 2) how these perceptions and expectations changed over the course of the students' first academic year. In doing so, I draw upon in-depth, qualitative interviews of a stratified sample of 12 UNI freshmen. These interviews enabled me to develop thick, rich descriptions of the perceptions of these students based on their current lived experiences. The sample of 12 students was selected from a complete list of registered incoming students for the Fall semester of 1997. The sample included six women and six men. Two of these students were African American, one was Asian American and two were from out-of-state.

The interview questions focused on a variety of issues, including residence hall living, the classroom setting, interactions with professors, social activities, dating relationships, interactions with parents, decisions about a major, sources of anxiety, and the availability of support systems. This information was supplemented by data gathered during follow-up interviews with the same students at the beginning of the Spring semester of 1998. These second-stage interviews explored the students' influential experiences since beginning college, disappointments, relationships with roommates, perceptions of academic workload and classroom atmosphere, experiences going home for winter break, attitudes toward finals; and overall changes in expectations. By the time the second set of interviews took place, two of the respondents had transferred to different institutions, one to an out-of-state community college and the other to a different state university in Iowa, and thus were interviewed by phone. In addition to discussing the above topics, these students also discussed their reasons for choosing to leave UNI.

During the interview process, several themes emerged which reveal how this group of students has experienced their first year of enrollment at the University of Northern Iowa. In the following analysis, these themes will be identified, developed and analyzed.

Date of Award



Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Presidential Scholar Designation

A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation Presidential Scholar

Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (32 pages)

Date Digital



©1998 - Kristin Michael





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