College Park devises a safety net for struggling students

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- If the past is a guide, 50 percent of the freshmen arriving for orientation this summer at the University of Maryland College Park will drop out without ever seeing a diploma.

The problem is acute. It affects the quality of academic life, the dreams of students and the pocketbooks of state taxpayers. Its causes are many, but chief among them are faulty management by the university in the past, and poor choices and unrealistic expectations by the students.

"What they really ought to do," said 25-year-old Patrick Delaney, as he sped away on a moped last week, golf clubs slung across his shoulder and a "School is Hell" slogan on his T-shirt, "is to get a group of kids in a corner and tell it like it is: The school is big, the lines are long; it's better to drop a class you think you might fail 'cause it'll count against you and eventually you get kicked out; and if you don't do well the first year, forget about getting in selected majors."

Well, university officials are about to take Mr. Delaney's advice and much more.

The top academics are carrying out a plan, a systematic overhaul of the way things are done here, from what they tell students before they start to what happens to college deans when they don't deliver.

It will put a Big Brother-like computer on the trail of wayward freshmen -- they can get lost easily here -- and it will see the university president and other top brass in the classroom this fall teaching new students how to succeed in college.

First, some background:

College Park, with 26,000 undergraduates, is one of the 10 largest public campuses in the nation.

Its dropout rate is at the national average: better than most public colleges and universities in the state, but worse -- in some cases, far worse -- than the best public research universities in the country.

Much of what academics are now proposing is the result of several years of efforts to improve undergraduate education.

"What's new is we're seriously intensifying efforts to improve graduation rates," said J. Robert Dorfman, university vice president and chief academic officer.

In an interview last week, Dr. Dorfman, political science professor Donald C. Piper and chief university data collector Debra Stuart detailed their plan of attack.

It starts with mandatory advising of freshmen twice a year. It includes an "early warning" system for freshman -- because students need to know where they stand against university expectations soon enough to take remedial action.

Then, an "academic audit" of each student's progress -- the courses they are taking and the progress they are making -- designed to get sophomores into majors they can master before it's too late and they end up discouraged enough to drop out.

Also, College Park will urge -- but not require -- freshmen to enroll in a non-credit course called, "The Student in the University," described as a continuing discussion between faculty and students to get the latter accustomed to the ropes as well as the higher academic standards.

On many campuses, this type of course is the difference between success and failure. Of College Park freshmen who took the course in 1987, 97 percent were still in school five semesters later, compared with 71 percent for the students who didn't take it.

There are hardly enough seats in this class for 3,000-plus freshmen -- yet.

This fall, to underscore the importance College Park is placing on ensuring that students get their diplomas, President William E. Kirwan, Dr. Dorfman, the other university vice presidents and some of the deans will teach sections of the two-hour-a-week course, adding 10 new sections.

Eventually, Dr. Dorfman said that he hopes to train enough faculty to make seats available for the entire freshmen class.

Those are the basics.

In addition, the plan prepared by a committee chaired by Dr. Piper calls for each department chair, the dean of each college and the heads of such key offices as admissions and financial aid to develop strategies and goals of their own to reduce the dropout rates.

For instance, admissions might give prospective students more realistic information to help them judge whether College Park is right for them, and financial aid might find a way to help students whose money runs out before they graduate.

These efforts, as well as the success or failure of students and the reasons for it, will be analyzed, judged, published annually and used to develop new and better strategies. The job takes a new assistant vice president in the provost's office who starts Aug. 1.

Overall, the dropout rate for new full-time freshmen after five years at College Park is 50 percent. That compares with rates of 23 percent to 46 percent at the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan, North Carolina and six other public research universities College Park measures itself against.

For black students, the dropout rate is higher -- 70 percent, again higher than the other nine universities but slightly lower than the nationwide average.

For transfer students who come with credits under their belt but who do not meet the same admissions standards as freshmen, the five-year dropout rate is 54 percent.

The annual toll is high. One-third of the students who transferred to College Park in 1989 -- 900 students -- quit within one year.

While the new strategies are designed to help all students, university officials say more study is needed for these two groups of students.

Matching students to colleges is an important question for taxpayers. It costs thousands more dollars to educate a student at College Park than it does at nearby Bowie State University, Towson State or other public campuses.

For students, failure can discourage them from ever completing a college degree. How many students complete their studies elsewhere is unknown, but university officials assume it is the majority.

A new computer system for tracking students will help officials pinpoint why students leave and do something about it. Right now, university officials say there is no single reason.

"I think there is something we don't know yet," said Dr. Stuart. The explanations include the fact that most students live off campus -- studies show students who live or work on campus get better grades -- campus size, climate and other things unique to College Park.

A study of students who dropped out in the mid-1980s -- good students as well as those who failed -- showed that many felt they had not received the proper advice. In exit interviews, students frequently give what officials call a "socially acceptable" reason for leaving -- financial.

"We don't buy it," said Stewart Edelstein, associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science who helped prepare the retention plan.

One major problem in the past decade has been large numbers of students who enroll in College Park expecting to get into certain selective majors such as business.

Yet the university tolerated a shortage of advisers, meaning that many students continued working toward selective majors well into their junior year despite grades that gave them no chance of being admitted. Under the new system, the chances of that happening will be greatly reduced.

Another problem that discourages students -- the unavailability of courses required for graduation -- is being solved, according to Dr. Dorfman. As part of the retention plan, the campus is promising to provide enough courses so a student can graduate within four years. Only 27 percent of freshmen now do so. This promise can now be kept, Dr. Dorfman said, because of a new computer system that allows academics to predict demand and shift resources accordingly.

A third problem -- too many students -- is on its way to being solved. The undergraduate population is expected to be trimmed to 23,000 by 1995.

The price of the retention plan has not been calculated, but Dr. Dorfman said cutting other programs this fall is expected to make the money available. "It doesn't strike me as terribly expensive," he said.

College Park officials have spent the past six months revamping the summer orientation program now being offered to the class of 1995. The new academic advising system will be tested this fall. The goal is to move graduation rates up 15 points in five years. "We're getting to work on it," Dr. Dorfman said.

Improving the graduation rate

Here is a summary of recommendations from the College Park faculty:

* Describe more realistically the University' expectations in recruitment of prospective students.

* Help students develop realistic vocational goals early in their college careers.

* Create an early warning system to advise students of performance in their first six weeks.

* Begin mandatory advising in fall and spring of freshman year.

* Make more slots available in an optional course on college life for freshmen.

* Conduct a complete review of each student's academic goals and performance during the third semester to be sure he or she is on the right track.

* Collect data to find and fix trouble spots such as freshman math, a course failed by half the freshmen who dropped out in 1989.

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