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image: Campus NewsKeeping the students we want
Initiatives intervene before students ponder that age-old question, "Should I stay or should I go?"

It's inevitable: some of the parents who dropped off first-years this September will receive that dreaded phone call late in fall quarter, right around Thanksgiving: "Mom, Dad, I don't like it here. I want to leave."

Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, has heard the story many times. "Parents hate it," he says. "It's like being socked in the face. They think, 'But we just went through the whole ritual of dropping you off.' That's what you can read on their faces September 15: 'This kid is here for good-right?'"

Almost 20 years ago, in 1983, when the College was graduating only 62 percent of incoming first-years after four years and 71 percent after six years, the response might have been a frustrated "your guess is as good as ours." But in recent years, as the graduation rate has risen to 80 percent after four years and 84.5 percent after six, Boyer's response is a resounding, if tempered, affirmative: "We'll do all that we can to ensure the academic success of our students."

The effort begins long before mid-September, as the admissions staff whittles the applicant pool down to a (slightly larger every year) group of high academic achievers who say Chicago is their first choice. It continues with a revamped New Student Orientation (see "College Report," October/00) and targeted events as students progress through the next four years. Those efforts are reinforced by a College advising office that's becoming less a group of what former Dean of Students Katie Nash called "airline reservationists"-advisors whose raison d'etre was to facilitate drop-and-add. Now technology takes care of such tasks, and the advisors are sounding boards for students' concerns and big-life questions. Meanwhile, the housing staff, faculty, and administrators are more attuned to their roles in retaining students who might otherwise become what a 1998 study on attrition for the College termed "leavers."

Other changes help round out the student experience: a growing bevy of foreign-study programs, College-sponsored internships (see "College Report," April/01), the new centrally located residence halls, and the Bartlett dining hall-even the Reynolds Club, a gathering place students now take for granted but was sorely needed when it was renovated in 1995. The Gerald Ratner Athletics Center is eagerly anticipated by the many students who shoot hoops or swim laps when they're not hitting the books like the good Chicago kids they still are.

The changes are part of a concerted plan to improve the quality of student life and, unquestionably, to improve the College's retention rate-and not just because Chicago has made a woeful showing in this area in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings (see "News you can abuse," page 18), but because it's the right thing to do.

"It comes from having a dean who's interested in the whole student," says Susan Art, AM'74, who became dean of students this July after 12 years as a College advisor. For his part, Boyer is quick to point out that he's not the first College administrator to be concerned with retention (he cites a 1961 study on freshmen attrition by Mary Alice Newman and the efforts of his predecessors in the 1980s and early 1990s). Still, "the whole student" has become the mantra for College administrators and staff since Boyer became dean in 1992. There isn't, he makes clear, talk about changing the type of students who come to Chicago.

"The fears that we're going to turn Chicago into a Princeton are simply groundless," says Michael R. Jones, AM'83, PhD'88, associate dean of programs and development in the College. Rather, the talk is of making life better for, in Art's words, the "idiosyncratic" individuals who continue to be drawn to Chicago's intellectual environment.

Vice president for College enrollment Michael C. Behnke agrees. "Our students define themselves as students," he says, "not as athletes or student-council presidents, though some may be those as well." As academic beings who emulate the faculty, Chicago students, says Art, "love critical-skills development-and they don't develop without being challenged. But we have to find the right balance. We don't want them to be demolished by the challenges so that they lose a sense of themselves and their capacities."

Why does Chicago have more "leavers" than its peer schools? That, says Boyer, depends on how you define peers. Harvard and Yale graduate upwards of 95 percent, but, he says, Chicagoans more closely resemble students at MIT or Caltech, which have retention rates in the mid-80s to low 90s.

As for why leavers depart, the answers are not clear-cut. But a study of 114 first-years who left the College in 1997, including 30 interviews, is instructive.

"The data simply fail to put a finger on one or two or three aspects of the University of Chicago 'culture' that, more often than elsewhere, propels people to leave," stated the study's author, Joseph C. Hermanowicz, AB'90, AM'93, PhD'96. One thing is sure: counter to common belief, students don't leave because they can't hack it. Though some leavers cited the common core or the academic rigor, their academic standing tends to parallel those who stay: the College both loses and retains good and poor students. And while about one in four leavers interviewed said their primary reason was financial, their financial-aid profiles also paralleled those of the student body at large. Another debunked myth: students depart to attend prestigious schools they didn't get into the first time around. Most transfer to state universities or small colleges-usually to be closer to home.

Attrition is a problem across the board, affecting students of both genders and all racial and ethnic groups. Most students cite two or three compounding reasons for leaving, such as feeling they don't fit in with other students, being dissatisfied with their financial aid, and disliking the quarter system. For a small subset, the match with the College is itself questionable-they leave to pursue programs of study not offered by Chicago, like filmmaking or engineering.

Two points have driven the College's initiatives in recent years: the decision to leave is made quickly, usually soon after arrival, and it most often occurs in social isolation and with little information. Indeed, students thinking about leaving almost never consult faculty members. They rarely consult advisors, and when they do, it usually is to learn the mechanics for leaving. Few have sustained dialogue on the issue with staff in their houses.Indeed, besides parents, students thinking about leaving talk to very few people.

"Given what we know," the report concluded, "changing the structure of communication, especially communication with students in the first year of college when they are at greatest risk, offers the highest hope for substantially reducing attrition...."

In short, a simple "How's it going?"-early and often-from a College advisor, resident head, or resident assistant can do wonders. Meanwhile, Heather L. Johnson, AB'98, and her College programming staff have created a roster of activities to address unspoken anxieties. New Student Orientation, which once featured hours of placement exams, now gives first-years the time and space to get to know each other.

For second-years, the office's Web site offers tips on choosing a concentration and how to approach department chairs. "Students tell us two things: they don't know what to ask, and they're afraid. So that's an obvious place where we can provide some guidance." At the Taking the Next Step career event for third-years, she says, "students realize, 'Oh wow. Everyone has a fear of finding a job next year. Everyone's nervous. I'm not the only one.'"

The success of these programs, Johnson says, hinges on the faculty. "At the end of the day, if the faculty doesn't endorse what we offer, then it's not cool." Luckily, Michael Behnke says, the faculty is very responsive. "And that's not true at other institutions. I find there is a tremendous sensitivity to retention issues on the part of Chicago's faculty and the administration. Areas are not being consciously neglected," he notes. "Everyone's busy and has priorities in their own work. But once a problem is identified, plenty of people are ready to step up and address it."

The College's success is written in the retention numbers, which have inched steadily upward since the lows of the early 1980s. But it's also apparent, says Bill Michel, AB'92, deputy dean of development and student activities, in the "new peer pressure to recognize the benefits of this place. Students get frustrated now by others who complain all the time."

The atmosphere has changed in other ways too. "On a broad cultural level," says Michael Jones, "the College is now a much less isolated place. Now it is more a part of the neighborhood and the city, and there is a connection to the world. As a result, one doesn't have to either be here fully, in some monastic sense, or drop out. It isn't so black and white."

Slowly but surely, more and more often, Boyer agrees, the parents in mid-September are right: these kids are here for good. - S.A.S.

 


  OCTOBER 2001

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