Extension's fall program gives freshmen a head start
New campus policy on grade transfers is erasing distinctions for spring admits
| 26 October 2005
When Ana Buchberg received the letter from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions in March, she felt lost. Her application for fall 2005 had been rejected, though she was offered the chance to enroll at Berkeley this spring. She considered spending a few months traveling, but by the end of the day she had made a decision. She enrolled in UC Berkeley Extension's Fall Program for Freshmen (FPF).
Now she's in Berkeley, making friends with other freshmen, participating in university activities, and taking classes with some of the same faculty she'll see on campus next semester.
"I'm really thrilled to be here," she says. "I don't feel like a second-class student, and I would have been sad if I'd come in the spring and didn't have a chance to have the fall experience."
In a first for the 24-year-old program, Buchberg and her 654 classmates will be transferring more than class credits when they matriculate this spring. Thanks to a new policy adopted by the Academic Senate over the summer, they'll be transferring their grades as well.
"Spring admits formerly operated under a sense of doubt about their status," says Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Genaro Padilla. "Obviously, these are very, very good students, but when they get the letter, the first thing they hear is that they are not accepted for fall. We've turned that spring letter from a guarded invitation that seemed more of a 'no' than a 'yes' to one that makes clear they've been accepted at Berkeley. There's no equivocation about this opportunity."
Of the nearly 37,000 applicants to Berkeley in 2005, fewer than 10,000 were offered admission for fall. But an additional 2,085 were offered spots for the next term, openings created by students leaving or completing their studies at the end of the fall semester. "We have excess capacity in the spring," says Richard Black, associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment. With a bit fewer than half of those offered admission at Berkeley accepting in any given term, 950 of the spring admits are expected to start classes in January. Nearly 70 percent of them will have already completed a semester of Berkeley-equivalent classes through the Extension program.
"Berkeley is held in such high regard that many high-school seniors are willing to wait," says Black. "The Fall Program for Freshmen is an opportunity to bring them to campus and give them an excellent start on their Berkeley education."
Over nearly a quarter-century, the program has ushered more than 10,000 students onto the Berkeley campus. This year's cohort of 655 students is 82 larger than last year's, but nearly 80 others were turned away.
"We would love to accommodate every spring admit," says Extension Dean James Sherwood. "They are all part of a very deserving cadre of students. The reality is that Extension is limited in capacity. We don't have the space for more classes."
Once admitted to the fall program, students can participate in campus activities, apply for financial aid, and receive university housing. Not all accept spots in the dorms, but this year all FPF students who requested housing were offered it. The 39 courses available to them fulfill campus breadth requirements for graduation, as well as requirements for quantitative reasoning and reading and composition, so the credit transferred at the end of the term gives them a head start on finishing on the same schedule as their classmates.
Students, instructors, and administrators all cite small class sizes and direct contact with instructors, many of whom teach the same or similar courses on campus, as among the chief benefits FPF students enjoy. In contrast to the size of lower-division lecture courses, which can number several hundred students, the largest FPF classes are approximately 70; many are smaller. And FPF discussion sections are led by the instructors themselves, rather than a graduate-student instructor (GSI).
"I'm my own GSI," says Robert Acker, a campus lecturer in Geography with eight years of involvement in the program. "Students get a unique opportunity for close contact with regular faculty. They get an idea of what a college-level academic discipline looks like."
Acker also sees an advantage in the classes' composition. Unlike campus courses, which typically include a mix of upper- and lower-division students, the fall program is for first-semester freshmen only, a difference that helps build close relationships.
Victoria Robinson, a five-year instructor in the FPF program who is also an ethnic-studies lecturer and coordinator for Berkeley's American Cultures Center, notes that the small class size does more than encourage contact with instructors. It develops a sense of community, creating a better opportunity for achieving social change, a central goal of ethnic studies.
"The students are always together as a group, so they develop a cohort moving from class to class that gives them a chance to talk about the issues," she says. "This helps create a safe space for them to voice things they otherwise wouldn't. They establish ownership over their education."
The size of the program also offers benefits beyond class numbers and community. The small, self-contained campus gives students easy access to the program's staff. It all adds up to what political-science instructor Darren Zook calls "a really valuable program for students," many of whom have to overcome the feeling that they didn't measure up to the regular fall admits.
"FPF students have something to prove," Zook says. "They want to overachieve. They're in class every day and do a fantastic job."
Like Buchberg, Georgia Gann, who began her studies on campus last spring, was "incredibly disappointed" at missing out on fall admission, and seriously considered offers from Tufts and Northeastern. But friends insisted she'd be "insane" to pass Berkeley by, so she enrolled in the Fall Program for Freshmen.
"I expected to hate it," Gann says. "But it was the best transition possible."
Data collected by the Office of Student Research show that over the past five years FPF students average slightly higher grades and a graduation rate 4.5 percent better than fall-admit students.
Phil Zackler, a program participant in fall 2002 now working to complete a degree in political science, credits the FPF with showing him how to be a campus leader.
"This is a fantastic program," says Zackler, who plans to attend law school. "It's a nurturing community that's absolutely academically rigorous. You get more attention from the instructors and a climate more open for questions. It gets the momentum going."
That sentiment is echoed by Omar Haroun, a 2003 program veteran who expects his economics degree in 2006 and hopes to earn a second bachelor's at Oxford.
"I got Berkeley rigor in a more welcoming environment," says Haroun. "It's like having your own private school within Berkeley."
If the slightly better GPAs historically achieved by FPF students were in part a result of not counting FPF work toward the final GPA, that difference may be affected by the university's decision to transfer grades as well as credit. Current and former FPF students nonetheless express enthusiasm for the change in grade transfer policy, as did instructors and administrators. The change is seen as a validation of the students, the program, and the mission of Extension.
"The new policy on grade transfers is recognition of the quality of education we provide, and not just in this program," says Extension's Dean Sherwood. "All our courses are approved by the Academic Senate's Committee on Courses of Instruction. This program is just one example of how well we work together with the campus."
Come spring, 655 freshmen will move all that more seamlessly into their classes at Berkeley.