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Keeping students at UND begins before they even get here

UND is taking new steps in its effort to retain students, but keeping them in class and on track to earn a degree is a job that begins well before they buy their first college textbook or declare a major.

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UND is taking new steps in its effort to retain students, but keeping them in class and on track to earn a degree is a job that begins well before they buy their first college textbook or declare a major.

Vice President for Student Affairs Lori Reesor said the first step is attracting and recruiting students to the university. Once they're accepted, they can go through the long-offered "Getting Started" program, which allows them to tour the campus, arrange their fall schedule and prepare for the next phase of their education.

"But we can't teach them everything they need to know over a day and a half in the summer," she said.

Steven Light, associate vice president for academic affairs, said a key piece of the retention efforts revolve around helping the recent high school students become "fully engaged" with the campus and college community as soon as possible.

That's important, he said, because getting involved in student organizations, extracurricular activities and other endeavors can help connect them to their new home -- especially when many incoming students hail from communities much smaller than the UND campus, which set a record fall enrollment of 14,697 this year.


"You can imagine if you come out of high school and you aren't equipped with the knowledge and skills and support to integrate immediately into the college experience, then you're going to be less likely to stay at the university and continue on through graduation," he said.

"What we're pursuing right now is thinking about each student's journey, and that journey doesn't just start when you walk through the door in the fall that first year."


Reesor said one of the new initiatives is to take a look at the Getting Started program, which can provide a general overview of the university's offerings but not a specialized introduction for the variety of incoming students.

One goal is to acclimating soon-to-be freshmen with their major, college or school within UND if they've already figured out their educational path. If the student is undecided, she said the university could work to ensure they understand the "broad opportunities" they have to help them feel just as welcome.

University officials also are focusing on ways to improve the quality of academic advising through new technology and better communication with students, which helps them keep tabs on requirements and course offerings that will allow them to graduate.

"We're looking at pursuing that so students do feel connected and feel like they're on track and making good progress," Reesor said.

Light said the human aspect of advising and intervening is "really important" in helping students be successful at UND. Some new tools assist in this work, including the College Student Inventory, a national survey that allows officials to learn more about a student's academic skills, readiness for college and what kind of support might make their time on campus a little easier.


The results can lead to some immediate interventions, he said. Advisers could suggest they visit the UND Writing Center if they indicate they aren't ready for college-level writing, for instance.

If a student says they want to meet new friends but aren't sure how, their advisor could put them in touch with student organizations that best fit their interests.

Reesor said getting involved is still up to the students, as it has been in the past. But this work could make the transition easier for them and make the campus seem more "inviting," she said.

"We want to empower each student to take some of those steps," Light said. "It's our job to help line a student up with the kind of tools and experiences that will allow them to succeed."

'Best experience'

Light said first-year students often take general education intro courses, which can have upwards of 200 students packed into a lecture bowl. There are ways to personalize these large classes, he said, such as learning the names of students, asking questions and requiring group exercises to get them involved.

"But that's hard to do when you have 200 students there, especially if we have students who are used to smaller high school settings," he said.

That's why the university is now testing seven "first-year experience" seminars that could be scaled up to include all freshmen in future years. Light said the courses break new students into small groups of no more than 25, which opens the door to peer-to-peer learning and a more personal start to the college experience while they learn essential skills like critical thinking, oral and written communication and the ability to solve problems and analyze issues.


One example is "The Call of Duty," a seminar that involves role-playing from a historical perspective to think about democracy and how it relates to current events. Another is "From House to Nurse Jackie to WebMD," which uses both academic texts and pop culture to give students a chance to explore issues now facing health professionals and the decision making process.

UND also is considering adding more "living-learning communities" as another way of making the large campus seem a little more familiar and friendly to the new students.

Reesor said these communities, which involve clustering students with a common academic focus or major in one residence hall, increases connections by helping them find new study partners and friends with similar interests. The university has tried this arrangement in the past, most recently with the School of Engineering and Mines.

Many of the student retention efforts are new and are currently in the testing phase, which means UND will track their success and make adjustments before they would be rolled out to cover the entire campus.

But the main goal, Light said, is to engage the students right away and then help them maximize their time on campus before they earn their degree.

"It's really about providing the best college experience possible," he said. "We want to make sure we set them up to have that best experience."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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