Saturday, August 05, 2000

Colleges become innovative

Orientation first step for successful student

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The freshman roommates haven't even met, but already they know who will bring the VCR and who'll supply the fridge.

[photo] Cecilia Reeder met her college roomate online.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        With help from the Internet and e-mail, an aggressive new program at the University of Dayton is helping ease the transition into college — weeks before students arrive.

        “We didn't have to make that first weird call, "Hi, I'm your roommate,'” says Cecelia Reeder of Norwood, who went online in a UD “virtual room” to get to know her two roommates. They've already planned their dorm room.

        Across the region, today's college freshmen are being encouraged to stay — and continue to pay — through innovative orientation programs. The idea is to get them off to a good start and to keep them in school during that first precarious year when dropping out is most frequent.

        “Holding them is important,” says Jaci King, director of federal policy analysis for the American Council of Education.

        For more selective schools with many applicants, successful orientations lead to keeping steady students who'll become loyal alumni.

  Colleges and universities are paying a lot more attention to orientation because most students who drop out do so after their freshman year.
  It can be academic, financial, or a combination of those and other problems, that results in the pruning of a freshmen class.
  So, orientation leading to a successful first year is key to student retention, says Mitchel Livingston, vice president of the University of Cincinnati.
  Enrollment casualty rates are illustrated by figures provided by Sara Murray-Plumer at Noel-Levitz, a national consultant on student retention.
  Citing current national data compiled by ACT Inc., she said average dropout rates before the sophomore year were 31.8 per cent for public four-year programs and 28.2 per cent for private institutions.
  On the flip side, graduation rates measure success.
  ACT allows five years to complete the baccalaureate degree, with a national average of 41.6 per cent for public institutions and 53.3 per cent for private schools.
  Those rates are lower than figures reported to the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data Systems, whose criteria allow six years to complete a bachelor's degree.
    Graduation rates in baccalaureate programs for first-time, full-time students who entered college in the 1992-1993 school year. Computations allow six years to complete the baccalaureate degree.
• University of Dayton 71%
• University of Cincinnati 49%
• Xavier University 67%
• Northern Kentucky University 30%
• Thomas More College N/A
• College of Mount St. Joseph 60%
• Miami University 80%
• Wilmington College 70%
    Sources: NCAA/schools
        For others such as the University of Cincinnati, where numbers are down about 3 percent from the main campus's ideal population of 30,000, retention is key to reversing a decline.

        All of which becomes even more important considering the data that suggest Ohio's college-age population will decline or not grow at least for the next eight years, Ms. King says.

        “Student retention is a major part of that program now,” says Randall F. Sarvis, spokesman for Wilmington College. “It doesn't stop with three days before school starts. It goes on through the year.”

        One of the most aggressive orientation programs in the Tristate is Dayton's “virtual room.”

        There, 1,800 incoming freshmen have been invited to use e-mail “to start building a community” months before arriving on campus.

        Eighty-two percent of UD's freshmen have e-mail, and most have visited UD's “virtual room” to contact roommates, enjoy a private instant chat system and ascertain what to bring and read before classes start.

        “I feel like I already have friends at UD,” says freshman Shannon Stapleton of Naperville, Ill. “I originally wasn't all that excited about going to school in the fall because I was afraid I wouldn't know anyone.”

        At Thomas More College, orientation became an overnight stay in the dorms for all 240 freshmen — including commuters — in midsummer, rather than two frantic days just before school began.

        Miami University's Web site includes traditional orientation information for 3,000 incoming freshmen. But the university's orienta tion also includes a First Year Institute during the four days before classes.

        All of Xavier University's 800 freshmen will go through orientation on the same weekend that students move into the dorms.

        Commuters and residents will walk together through two days of presentations on financial aid, personal safety, diversity, class registration and a Mass and panel on the Jesuit tradition.

        At the College of Mount St. Joseph, about 330 freshmen will be inducted into college life in a three-day orientation that begins a day earlier for students moving into dorms. Unlike some other schools, the Mount also has sessions aimed solely at older freshmen.

        The University of Cincinnati's “Preparing for the Journey” is meant to be more personal than the traditional orientation for the 3,000 freshmen.

        Underlying UC efforts is a growing appreciation of why undergraduates drop out, Vice President Mitchel Livingston says. “We used to deal with casualties. Now, we tell them, "How do you know when you're getting into trouble even before you get into trouble.'”


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