Opinion | 1:07 am | February 6, 2012 | By Scott Stern

STERN: Freshman seminars should be mandatory

Photo by Josh Satok.

When it comes to getting the courses I want, I consider myself supremely lucky. Yes, last semester, I was not placed into the English seminar I wanted or the Spanish seminar I initially wanted. And yes, this semester I was not placed into the residential college or the science seminar I wanted. But, I was able to secure a spot in a freshman seminar both semesters.

Freshman seminars should be mandatory. No student should begin his college career with only large, impersonal lectures. Unless a student is taking Directed Studies, he is not guaranteed a personal experience in the classroom. But he should be.

I can tell you anecdote after anecdote about the benefits of a freshman seminar. There was the dinner I had with my professor first semester to discuss contemporary politics, and the talk I just attended given by Julian Bond, a major civil rights leader, which I wouldn’t have even heard was happening but for my freshman seminar professor.

But there’s considerable empirical evidence as well. According to two of the most prominent researchers of higher education, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, who analyzed over 2,500 post-secondary studies relating to college and student development, “The weight of the evidence suggests that a first-semester freshman seminar is positively linked with both freshman-year persistence and degree completion. This positive link persists even when academic aptitude and secondary school achievement are taken into account.” Marymount College professor Joe Cuseo goes further, saying that freshman seminars increase both rate of retention and academic performance for students of all backgrounds in all types of academic institutions. There’s no denying it: freshman seminars work.

Yale should mandate that all freshmen take (at least) one of these extraordinary, and apparently quite important courses. Some students — pre-med, perhaps — may protest that there isn’t enough time in their schedules. But surely they can spare one course of the nine they take freshman year, especially since freshman seminars can help fulfill distributional requirements otherwise difficult to meet. (Mine secured me a writing credit, which I’ve heard can be a scourge for some science-minded students.)

The freshman experience at Yale is already renowned. But we can make it that much better.