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And yet the hurdles that must be overcome to keep
students from dropping out or “stopping out” at ECU are
the same that face most public institutions. They start with
personal problems that often are most acute in the first six to
eight weeks of the first semester, ranging fromhomesickness
to a death or financial crisis in the family to breaking up with
one’s high school sweetheart. Some new students find that they
just don’t fit in, or can’t make friends, which is not surprising
on a campus where the university population alone may be
many times that of the community in which they grew up.
Some have no idea how to manage their time, while others
arrive poorly prepared, with the mistaken assumption that
college is just high school writ large. “One thing we hear a lot
is, ‘I didn’t have to study in high school,’” said Shelly Myers,
director of ECU’s Academic Enrichment Center. That notion
starts to fade withmidterm exams and is dispelled completely
for some when D’s and F’s start showing up at the end of the
first semester.
Moreover, surviving the first semester on
the 23,500-student campus doesn’t guarantee
long-term persistence or timely graduation.
Growing debt prompts some students to give
up, and others to “stop out” for a semester
or more to earn tuitionmoney. While most
administrators here believe that working
ten to 12 hours a week helps give structure
to a student’s life, the problem comes when
they try to work 20 to 30 hours a week and
carry full class loads of 15 or 16 hours. “That’s
mutually exclusive, and I tell students that,”
said Joyner.
Still other students get bored with their
professors or the field of study they’ve chosen
and opt to switchmajors, a move that is almost guaranteed to
cost them an extra year in school. Some just decide that the
community college back home is the place they should be.
Whatever the reasons, increased awareness of the
dropout problem, fueled in part by better record-keeping
and more accessible data, is leading to demands for increased
accountability in higher education here in North Carolina and
across the nation. And the debate over who is responsible for
students dropping out—the students themselves who are, after
all, adults, or the institutions—seems to be losing steam.
“We’ve always assumed that it was all about students,”
said Kati Haycock, executive director ofThe Education Trust.
“All that universities were responsible for was to make their
treasures available, and if students take advantage of that, fine,
and if not, fine. I think what folks are saying now, especially
when it’s clear that it’s not all about the students, is that you
cannot blame your low graduation rates onmore poor
students, and themhaving to work more jobs, because when
you look at comparable institutions, you find wildly different
success rates.”
Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst
is less sanguine. He said that while universities are doing
better at assessing the dropout problem and providing data
that documents the scope of the problem, “there’s still no
accountability in higher education. While there are people
bemoaning this, there are no sanctions and incentives for these
results.”
But there are signs of change. The new president of the
University of North Carolina system, Erskine Bowles, declared
in his inaugural address earlier this year that retention rates
at the state’s 16 four-year colleges and universities are “wholly
unacceptable.” Some administrators here at ECU took that to
mean that targets or quotas for retention will be imposed.
In Georgia, the university system’s board of regents recently
adopted a plan that freezes tuition for four years for incoming
freshmen, an incentive for students to get their degree in four
years or face a sharp tuition increase in the fifth year. A similar
program at Western Illinois University since 1999 has resulted
in a four-percent increase in the four-year graduation rate.
In New York, Governor George Pataki has proposed that
the state give its public institutions a $500 bonus for each
student who graduates in four years. At the University of
Houston, students can get tuition rebates if they successfully
complete enough credit hours at the end of their first, second
and third years.
The demand for more accountability, when backed by
the threat of losing state funds, is likely to force colleges and
universities to try new programs and abandon old ones.
One expert, Syracuse University education professor
Vincent Tinto, argues that a program of incentives and
disincentives will benefit schools populated by full-time
students who already have the opportunity and the means
to finish on time. Other schools, he said, will try to solve the
problem by adding courses, hiring consultants, creating new
offices.
The real answer, Tinto said, is to establish the right
conditions and settings in which students, particularly new
students, are expected to exist. The research shows, Tinto said,
that students are more likely to stay in school and graduate
in settings where advising is taken seriously, where there is a
broad palette of support—academic, social and personal—that
connects students to other aspects of the collegiate experience,
and where there is frequent, high-quality contact among
faculty, staff and students. One contributing factor to the
“We know you need to tie them into the university in those first six to eight weeks,”
says Don Joyner, associate vice chancellor for admissions and advising at East
Carolina University.
At East Carolina
University, the
focus on freshmen
is unrelenting,
beginning with
summer orientation
and a “Weeks of
Welcome” program.