KU initiatives aim to boost freshman retention rate

Wichita freshman Nicholas Beddow learns how wave the wheat with his fellow incoming freshmen during the annual Traditions Night at Memorial Stadium. The annual event teaches new Jayhawks various traditions such as the rock chalk chant, waving the wheat and how to clap to the school fight song.

Nick Zych, of Lenexa, and Peter Beatty, of Bonner Springs, are freshman roommates this year at Kansas University, and already they’ve gone through some different experiences than students who came before them.

“We had a great first week,” Zych said. The roommates said they’ve enjoyed meeting a new, diverse group of people and appreciated some of the new initiatives the university installed this year.

KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little told the Kansas Board of Regents earlier this month that she hopes to get the university’s freshman retention rate from 80 percent to 90 percent in 10 years.

“We want to work very early on with students on what are our academic expectations and what does success look like in a university environment,” said Sarah Crawford-Parker, an assistant vice provost who is leading the university’s new Office of First-Year Experience charged with helping freshmen connect with KU.

Several initiatives, many of which are still in the pilot stage this fall, help illuminate how KU officials hope to make that happen.

A new kind of freshman course

KU is offering 11 first-year seminar courses as a pilot program this fall, though the university already has plans to double that number by next fall.

The classes are small — limited to just 19 students — and taught by faculty members who have done research in the field. Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology, served on a committee that helped form the new classes.

The courses are supposed to focus on engaging topics. “Why do the birds and the bees do it?” is one, focusing on sexual selection in biology.

The classes are offered for three credit hours and fill general education requirements.

“We’re trying to introduce students to the excitement of intellectual discovery and the culture of scholarly inquiry,” Crawford-Parker said, something that often doesn’t come until far later in a student’s education at KU.

Beatty was one of the students who opted to enroll in a seminar this year. He chose a geology course focusing on the future of energy production.

“I like it a lot,” he said. “Our professor seems like a really intelligent guy, and you can kind of get engaged a little more, especially since it’s a smaller class, and you can relate to people a lot more because they’re all freshmen.”

It’s a lot different than his introductory math, English and history courses, and nothing like his huge psychology class, he said. Crawford-Parker said the university hopes to eventually have more than half of its incoming freshmen enroll in one of the seminar courses.

Zych wasn’t in a seminar but did read the “Notes From No Man’s Land,” the common book KU distributed to all freshmen this year.

“They gave it to us for free, so I’m like, ‘Shoot, why not?'” read the book, he said.

He enjoyed the book and appreciated its perspective. The university has several common-book discussion groups, and author Eula Biss is scheduled for a campus visit in October.

Looking for early warning signs

Other programs also are being tested this fall. Kathryn Nemeth Tuttle, a special adviser to the provost, has been overseeing a new early-warning system that operates through KU’s Blackboard online course management system. It automatically sends university officials warnings when a student exhibits troubling behavior, such as getting below 65 percent on a test.

Professors also can flag troubling behavior (or mark “kudos” for students doing well).

That system is also in the pilot phase this semester, and is being tested in nine classes. Academic advisers monitor the flags and can intervene if necessary to recommend tutoring or referral to other university services.

Not every flag will require action, Tuttle said.

“We’re trying to determine the right balance,” she said.

If all goes well, the system could eventually be in place in the majority of classes designed for first- and second-year students, she said.

Paying the bills

The programs come with an added cost: The university eliminated its learning communities office in fall 2008, citing budget cutbacks as one of the reasons for the cut. The office served 435 students at the time. Those communities — which involve students taking multiple classes at once along with a small seminar discussion session — are set to return in the future.

The pilot program for the first-year seminar courses cost $120,000 taken from tuition funds in start-up costs, faculty development and instructional funds that were paid back to departments to free up faculty to teach the seminars, Crawford-Parker said.

Top KU officials have said that funds saved from the Changing for Excellence efficiency review assisted by the Huron Consulting Group will help defray the costs for the new initiatives in the future.