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Oregon universities seek ways to prevent dropouts


As classes begin at Oregon public universities, higher education officials hope to reduce a dropout rate that likely will result in the loss of 2,200 of 10,400 incoming freshmen before their sophomore year.

The percentage of freshmen who quit between fall 2005 and fall 2006 ranged from 31 percent at Eastern Oregon University to 15 percent at the University of Oregon.

Nationally, about 25 percent of first-time students at four-year public colleges quit before their sophomore year, according to federal and state officials.

After getting $142 million in new money from the Legislature, Oregon campus leaders are responding with initiatives to slow the steady drain of new students from state universities.

“We want to not only get them in, we want to get them through,” said Susan Weeks, vice chancellor for strategic programs and planning in the university system. “It doesn’t do our goal of having a highly educated population any good if you can’t get them through.”

The universities are boosting student support services such as tutoring and advising, giving students more opportunities to interact with faculty and intervening earlier when students are in trouble.

At the University of Oregon, the focus is on connecting students with the academic life of the college as quickly as possible, said Karen Sprague, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

One way the university does that is through “freshman interest groups” of 25 students who take two classes together, meet in small groups with a professor and student adviser and sometimes live in the same dorm.

“People leave for all sorts of reasons, but a big factor is a sense of isolation,” Sprague said. “Anything we can do to help people find their niche is going to help.”

Betsy Selander, an 18-year-old freshman from San Francisco, signed up for a residential interest group so she wouldn’t be lost in the crowds at the university.

“I like it when a school kind of holds your hands and guides you a little bit,” she said Thursday, while trying to put away a mountain of clothes on her bed before her roommate arrived. “I thought if I could find a small school within the big school I’d like it more.”

Another program that seems to work is the Students First Mentoring Program at Portland State University, created by Peter Collier, an associate professor of sociology.

The program, based on Collier’s research, supports freshmen who are eligible for financial aid and whose parents do not have a college degree by providing online help, tips and videos, as well as discussion groups. Some students also meet with a mentor.

Students in the program earn higher grades and more credits their freshman year, and retention rates are slightly higher, Collier said.

Stephanie Haas, a 20-year-old sophomore at PSU, said she might have quit during her freshman year without help from the program. Her mentor and others helped her through financial aid, roommate and academic issues, she said.

College was “so new and scary,” she said. “I remember calling my mom that first night and crying, ‘I want to go home.'”

Western Oregon University in Monmouth is expecting its freshman retention rate to improve by about 10 percent this year as a result of a campuswide focus on the issue, said Dave McDonald, associate provost.

The university is trying to create the feeling of a school that’s smaller than its 5,100 students. For instance, faculty have lunch with students regularly in their residence halls.

“It’s one more chance to connect with a faculty member, one more chance to add a face and personality to the people they’ll be taking classes from,” McDonald said.

Information from: The Oregonian,

–Associated Press

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