The Care and Feeding of Freshmen

Campus orientation programs aim to ease the transition and shrink the dropout rate.

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University of South Carolina students line up to eat a catered lunch at the Russell House on the Columbia campus.

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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.

Adding in other revenue—housing, meals, and books—students who don't return cost the university about $51,000 each over the three years they would have stayed. Given the high stakes, South Carolina provides so many support services for freshmen that they fill 14 pages of a handout on available programs, single-spaced. "Nobody should drop out given all these resources," says Susan Weir, associate vice president in charge of the Student Success Center. 

Intervention. There's also a call center at South Carolina that checks in on new students at least once in the first two weeks. If a student misses two or more sessions of a class, that triggers a program called Creating Academic Responsibility, which looks for patterns and, if there are any, tries to find and correct the cause. The university also monitors a Facebook-style social networking site called Gamecock Connection. If a student answers, "I disagree," to the innocent-seeming survey line, "I fit in here at the University of South Carolina," he or she can expect to hear from an adviser or administrator hoping to suss out the problem. "I don't know that I would call it Big Brotherly. I would call it intentional building of community," says Mary Stuart Hunter, associate vice president for the University 101 program. 

Though the seminars are optional, most freshman take them, and they do seem to help. The average first-year grade point average of students who take a U-101 seminar is 3.26, compared with 3.18 for those who don't—even though freshmen who take the course generally arrive with lower high school GPAs and SAT scores. And 87 percent return for sophomore year, vs. 85.4 percent of students who don't take a U-101 course. Still, whether programs are worth the expense remains a matter of debate.

In a survey released in January, the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs found that universities spent from $59 to $1,601 per student annually on student success programs. Yet only about half could credit them with increases in retention. And critics of such programs consider them expensive hand-holding. "The older faculty say it's too much coddling," says Friedman. 

Many entering students are the first in their families to go to college. Thanks to special education programs and advances in pharmacology, there are also more freshmen with learning disabilities and mental health issues. And the emphasis on standardized testing at lower grade levels has put more weight on memorization than on writing, reasoning, and problem-solving. "Common sense used to come from parents, the church, the Boy Scouts," says Harris Pastides, president at South Carolina. "Yet that's what we now have to teach." 

That is because today's parents "have really never let their children out of their sight, either physically or virtually," says Richard Mullendore, a professor of counseling and human development at the University of Georgia. Aaron Camillo, who just finished freshman year at South Carolina, says his mother is among his Facebook friends, "and every time I change my status, she posts on my wall to see if I'm OK." Others laugh and nod in recognition. "Here, you have to help yourself." 

The student support movement is growing beyond freshmen. The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience, which has added to its name "and Students in Transition," is working to help transfer students, graduating seniors, and grad students. It held a conference in April in Savannah, Ga., about tending to sophomores. "If we invest a lot in the first year and don't continue in the sophomore year," says Keup, "you've just moved the cliff."