March 8, 2006 in City

Connections key to college experience

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Finishing up

Percentage of students graduating from area university within six years:

EWU: 49 percent

WSU: 63 percent

UI: 54 percent

More than one in four university freshmen in America don’t return for their sophomore year.

At community colleges, about half the freshmen don’t come back.

One of the chief reasons for that has little to do with the classroom and more to do with friendships, associations and feeling connected – something universities are trying to improve.

“What they have to do is provide social anchors for students and help bridge the divide between the academic and the social,” said John M. Braxton, a researcher and author on the subject of keeping students in school.

Braxton, a professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University, will speak at Eastern Washington University’s Winter Showcase on Assessment today at 1 p.m. in the auditorium at Showalter Hall. The event highlights efforts at the school to find new ways of assessing EWU’s performance in a wide range of areas.

“We’re really looking at expanding the scope of assessments beyond the standard student competencies,” said Theresa Martin, director of institutional research at EWU.

In his speech today, and a workshop later in the day, Braxton plans to discuss some of the complexities of student retention at a school like EWU that blends a growing residential population with a longtime foundation of students commuting from Spokane.

While many schools are creating new combinations of living and learning – from academic-themed dorms to students sharing blocks of courses – those programs are often out of reach for the commuter.

“They often just want somebody to have lunch with, someone to have coffee with,” Braxton said.

According to federal statistics, fewer than 6 in 10 graduate within six years. At EWU, the most recent six-year graduation rate was 49 percent. At WSU, it was 63 percent, while at the University of Idaho it’s 54 percent.

The graduation rates, both nationwide and regionally, are lower for poor students and ethnic minorities. Fewer than half of African American, Hispanic and Native American students who start college finish.

The issue of dropouts has been a focus of university administrators for years, and universities have taken a lot of steps to try to make freshmen stick. In particular, universities are trying to match up academic and social environments to create more personal connections for freshmen.

WSU’s Freshman Focus puts students sharing a dorm into the same classes. EWU and UI both have “living/learning communities” that put together students with common interests or areas of study.

Braxton said such efforts are good steps. But he said that schools like EWU, with a high percentage of students who commute, face additional challenges in creating that sense of community. Many commuter students are older, with families and jobs; traditional-age students who live off-campus have trouble making social connections, as well.

“It almost seems that if you’ve got students in the residence halls, and then students the same age and they commute, they’re just never going to hook up,” he said.

Though EWU has spent recent years building its residential campus, students who commute from Spokane still make up the largest percentage of it students. Roughly 4 in 10 EWU students live in Spokane, which is more than twice the number who live on campus.

Braxton’s research suggests that schools should try to do two things – show a clear commitment to the overall welfare of students and exhibit institutional integrity by living up to their goals and values.

If an institution claims to be committed to racial diversity, for example, but tolerates instances of harassment, it could damage a student’s desire to stay there.

Financial and academic difficulties are also factors, but they’re not the major factors driving students out of college, Braxton said.

He mentioned a recent University of Georgia study that looked at several different selective universities to see which ones had the best retention rates and why. What researchers found, he said, is that the schools with the fewest dropouts were those that made sure every single student was treated like they were an at-risk student – given lots of help, tutoring, counseling and support – while at the same time setting high expectations.

“Everybody is given some kind of attention,” he said.


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