COLUMBIA, S.C.—Eight freshmen in flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirts assemble around a library table at the University of South Carolina to puzzle out homework from an introductory accounting class. With thick textbooks open before them, they struggle over one complicated problem after another in a lesson on preparing a balance sheet. Several look lost. In the past, they might have stayed that way, perhaps becoming so frustrated that they eventually dropped out of school. But colleges like South Carolina, having studied failure rates of new students as well as their own balance sheets, are stepping in with safety nets. "Why..." one student begins to ask timidly, then interrupts herself. "Oh, sorry."
"No, go for it," the instructor, an upperclassman, urges in a parlance very different from that of a classroom professor. He then patiently walks her through the problem.
"I wouldn't pass accounting without this," says Jennifer Stone of what this university of about 27,000 students calls its Student Success Center. The center is part of a nationwide proliferation of orientation programs to help students survive what can be a perilously intimidating first year in college. "It feels like a private class," says Lauren Huleatt, who, without such help in the previous semester had to drop this introductory accounting course—a requirement for business majors.
In all, just under 58 percent of American colleges and universities now offer some sort of extended orientation or other support services like South Carolina's, according to the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience, which is based at the university. The reason is simple. Some 29 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions fail to return for a second year, according to the center. Other surveys put the number near 30 percent.
Thus, with budgets stretched and pressure high to increase retention rates, colleges have turned what was once perhaps a weekend of half-hearted mixers into a sophisticated yearlong series of seminars and strategies managed by full-time counselors and experts. They support students newly independent after lives increasingly programmed by well-meaning parents. Nearly 60 percent of schools with such programs have added them within the last 10 years, and a quarter of those within the last two. Prompted by studies showing that first-year students are most likely to drop out when they fail to make friends, many universities also go to great lengths to help their freshmen bond with one another.
"Learning to Learn." The boom in retention programs means you can look for one that fits best. The University of California-Santa Barbara, for example, offers weeklong adventure trips before the start of the semester to help first-year students connect; they include rock-climbing, camping, and kayaking. At Kennesaw State University in Georgia, freshmen can choose to be assigned to a "learning community"—a group that takes the same required and elective courses together.
At Purdue, students in learning communities even live together, part of a first-year-experience approach the university credits for raising its freshman retention rate to a record 87 percent. The University of Georgia offers the optional summer Freshman College, where students can make friends and acquaint themselves with the campus while taking for-credit courses such as "Learning to Learn," art appreciation, American history, and introductory sociology. And Utah Valley State College trains "one-stop-shop" advisers to help new arrivals with issues from registration and financial aid to parking.
In the past, schools took a more Darwinian approach to freshman dropouts, says Dan Friedman, director of extended orientation programs at South Carolina. "Colleges would tell students, 'Look to your right. Look to your left. One of you will drop out before you graduate.' Now they're asking, 'Why is that a good thing?" The institution also benefits by giving struggling students extra support, says Jennifer Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience: "It's much cheaper to keep a student than to have to go out and replace him."
South Carolina, for example, spends $2.7 million a year on student success programs like University 101, which offers for-credit elective seminars on topics from basic study skills to stress management. The university figures these programs keep 138 freshmen a year from dropping out, saving more than $4 million annually in lost potential tuition alone, assuming 138 more sophomores, juniors, and seniors each year than there would be otherwise.