Aiming to increase freshman retention and address equity gaps, the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) launched the NevadaFIT Program in 2013. The program, which is informed by a similar program at Louisiana State University for first-year biology students started in 2005, consists of a one-credit, weeklong course before the semester starts. During NevadaFIT, students attend academic lectures, get homework, and take exams in an accelerated format while adjusting to university life, such as living in dorms, meeting with advisors, and acquainting themselves with the tutoring centers. Over 30 institutions have adopted programs similar to the one founded at LSU, which research has demonstrated has a positive impact on student outcomes. The University of Nevada, Reno is the first university to apply the model to all students across all majors.
The NevadaFIT program helps students experience a college class, giving a sense of the style, pace, and intensity they will face in the coming semester. After launching the program, UNR saw increases in academic performance, retention, and graduation. In the years since the program started, participation has steadily grown from a pilot program of 33 Biology first-year students to 3,300 across all academic units today. It is now a required course for all first-year students. NevadaFIT plays a particularly powerful role in demystifying the college experience for first-generation students.
Each UNR college has its own NevadaFIT program. In 2017, the university hired Felicia DeWald as a director to provide centralized management of the program as it scaled. She helps each college plug in their tailored content and manages the hiring of 550 upper classmen students to mentor seven students each during the week.
Beyond increases in retention and completion, survey data shows the program has helped students foster meaningful relationships in their major that enable them to flourish in the classroom and take advantage of resources. In short, the program helps students establish relationships and a support network that helps them overcome academic and non-academic hurdles. One-year retention is 7-10 percent higher for participating students.
What contributes to the program’s success? For starters, faculty teach real content from the fall semester, mimicking the pace and rigor of ordinary courses. This allows students to experience challenges at a low-stakes time and introduces them to seeking help to overcome them. Additionally, NevadaFIT introduces students to a structured day in which they have meals, time for exercise and wellness in addition to the coursework.
Other institutions aiming to emulate the program shouldn’t shy away from making course content difficult and realistic, DeWald says. It’s also important that colleges offer unique versions of the program, allowing students to get a preview of what coursework in their discipline is like. Leadership buy-in for the program is essential to its success at every level. A president and provost can make clear it’s an institutional priority and deans play an indispensable role in shaping the content for their colleges.
Diversity and inclusion training is also critical to NevadaFIT’s success. Each program has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training for participating students and student-mentors receive diversity training prior to working with students. Mentor selection is a highly competitive process aimed at recruiting academically successful students from a diverse array of backgrounds. Additionally, identity-based student organizations participate in the program, fostering a sense of welcomeness for students.
In 2020, the NavadaFit program was cancelled due to the pandemic. But this provided an opportunity to pilot a small program for 33 Transfer students called TransferFIT. This program is shorter than the NevadaFIT program, but stays true to the model. Students attend sessions with content relevant to transfer students, network with faculty, and socialize with peers led by upperclassmen mentors who were once transfer students. The 2021 NevadaFIT program was bigger and better than ever before. All incoming freshmen were required to take the course for the first time and enrollment was over 3,200. NevadaFIT also included a new camp called ExplorationFIT for exploratory/undeclared students and 68 percent of these students stated that the experience helped them select or narrow their major selection. This year, TransferFIT also increased in size with 114 participants.
One important lesson learned from the challenges of the pandemic was the importance of digital accessibility for all students. The University of Nevada, Reno partnered with Apple to provide every incoming freshman with an iPad at NevadaFIT called the Digital Wolf Pack Initiative. This technology was instrumental to the success of NevadaFIT and it will continue to provide students with the tools they need to be successful in college and beyond. The Digital Wolf Pack Initiative enhanced the NevadaFIT experience on campus by creating more opportunity for interaction and engagement. It also provided a common platform to teach notetaking skills, organizational skills, and much more.