Thursday, September 23, 2004

UC works to keep students in school

By Denise Smith Amos
Enquirer staff writer


First day of classes at UC
When University of Cincinnati assistant professor Ronald Siry looked at the 150-plus freshmen packing his Introductory Psychology course Wednesday morning, he didn't consider the statistics that suggest 28 percent of them may not return to UC next year.

It didn't enter his mind, he said, that half of UC's freshmen may not get their bachelor's degree within six years, if UC's historic trends hold up.

All Siry sees, he says, is a room full of potentially successful students who will pass his class, finish freshmen year, return next year and eventually graduate.

"My thinking is that everybody in this room can succeed, not because of me, but because they want to succeed," said Siry, 66. He's been teaching at UC for nearly 40 years.

Most of UC's 33,576 students started their first day of fall classes Wednesday, adding to interstate traffic jams, filling up area bookstores, and tramping through UC's newly revamped Clifton campus.

When Siry asked how many students work at least part time, nearly all hands went up.

He vowed to work with students so they won't feel forced to choose between quitting their jobs or quitting school. Then he told them he was happy they're here.

Ronald Siry, a UC assistant professor of psychology, offers these suggestions for parents to help freshmen survive their first year:
1. Set examples. Show how your efforts in college led to successes.
2. Give student a lot of leeway in selecting a career, even if you are paying for it.
3. Allow at least a year for the student to decide on a major.
4. If the student wants to quit, encourage him to map out a direction in life and consider the rewards he wants for himself and family.
5. Offer free room and board at home as incentive to stay in school.
6. If you can't dissuade a student from dropping out, the "real world" experience might be what they need.
Siry was doing his part at a university struggling to boost its freshman retention rate - the rate at which first-year students return the following year. UC's retention rate (the opposite of its drop-out rate) is among the lowest in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, at 72 percent.

"The issue of retention is really critical," said Greg Hand, a UC spokesman. "It's not just a simple matter of adjusting to college life."

Other public colleges also are struggling: Northern Kentucky University estimates 65 to 70 percent of its freshman return the next year, while Cincinnati State retains about 53 percent of its freshmen.

UC leaders say they want their school to climb in national college rankings, in part to attract higher-achieving students.

Next year, UC will raise admission standards and possibly reject some incoming freshmen. Now UC accepts nearly all students who apply.

The school employs other strategies to keep freshmen focused, Hand said. They include a new center to help students decide on a major, another center to help students make up deficiencies in one or two classes, free tutoring and an "early warning" system for at-risk students.

Several UC freshmen said those efforts have already helped.

Joe Tenkman, a 19-year-old student from White Oak, said an instructor at his Special Topics class is helping him narrow his career choices.

"The first day of school was better than I expected," he said.

UC also established 80 groups of students with similar majors or interest. Called Learning Communities, some groups even live and take classes and breaks together.

Nicole Grow, a 19-year-old freshman from Chicago, said she's undecided about her major but met many English and history students through her Learning Community.

"It's just great to get to know other freshmen. They make you feel comfortable here," she said.

Students' social adjustments to school are important too, said Mitchel Livingston, vice president of student affairs and services.

That's why UC recently spent millions of dollars on new student recreational facilities and gathering spots and has increased campus activities and clubs, all designed to tie students closer to campus, he said.

"When you have students just passing through and arguing passionately for more parking spaces ... those are the most vulnerable students," Livingston said.


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