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The State of the (Student) Union

The Researchers and Pollsters shall, from time to time, give to the Academic Communities information on the State of the Student Union.”

…and then that research is variously interpreted by media outlets. We have three different takes on a report from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010, a survey of 202,000 students from 280 institutions. We’re also asking for your feedback, as the folks who are in the field.

The Chronicle of Higher Education:Economy Changed Freshmen’s Plans But Didn’t Shake Their Confidence,” by Sara Lipka focuses on freshmen’s self-assessments: a statistically impossible 71.2% rated their academic abilities as “above average,” and they were generally confident in their overall abilities. Lipka also looks at the results discussing how the economy affected the students’ college choices. While students who said money had an impact on their college choice were nearly as likely to gain admission to their first choice schools as students who said money wasn’t a factor, they were far more likely to not be going to that first-choice institution, and they were also much more likely to be attending college close to home, or living at home.

Question for You: Have you seen this haves-and-have-nots polarization on your campus?

Takeaway Quote: “‘More students expect more of themselves and expect more of the college environment,’ said John H. Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which administers the survey.”  This reminds me of yesterday’s blog post on expectations and higher ed costs.

Inside HigherEd: Stressed, Yet Hopeful, by Allie Grasgreen looks at another polarization: Students have huge expectations for the college experience and themselves, but they also are dealing with significant mental health issues. Stressors range from finances to anxieties about social acceptance. So much is riding on the college experience and so much is at risk. Grasgren points out that the students’ hopes that a college degree will lead to financial security and overall success are belied by other studies that show that a college education doesn’t guarantee those things the way it used to.  And even while they sometimes seem reluctant to meet and talk face-to-face, students have said that interpersonal contact with other freshmen would help them acclimate to the college experience. So maybe what students can seem reluctant to do is what they most want–and need–too.

Question for You: Have you noticed students needing social programs, even as they seem reluctant to attend or participate?

Takeaway Quote: “’Is it realistic to have incredibly high expectations of the college experience? Probably not,’ Pryor said, noting that both this survey and others reflect ‘tremendously high’ expectations. ‘Would I want it any different? Probably not.’” — John H. Pryor, lead author of the report and director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

The New York Times: “Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen,” by Tamar Lewin focuses, as you might’ve guessed, on the mental and emotional health aspects of the survey. While students were likely to say their academic abilities were above average, only 52% have the same thing to say about their mental health. Throughout the survey, women’s opinion of their own mental health has been lower than that of men, and this year is no different, with the gap widening. Researchers point out that young men are more likely to blow off steam by working out, playing video games or acting up–drinking and property damage for example. The researchers also say, echoing the Inside HigherEd article, that students are pining many hopes on college, and they’re aware, to one degree or another, that college (and the economy) may not deliver. Also, students may have unrealistically high expectations for their mental health. They may be under the impression others are more mentally healthy when that isn’t the case.

Question for You: Have you encouraged students to see college as more than just a path to a big paycheck, as a way to grow as a person, make friends and discover interests? Is this successful?

Takeaway Quote: “I don’t think students have an accurate sense of other people’s mental health,” he added. “There’s a lot of pressure to put on a perfect face, and people often think they’re the only ones having trouble.” — Dr. Mark Reed, director, Dartmouth College counseling

Same As They Never Were?

Today, over at The New York Times‘ website, there is an interesting debate going on. In their aptly named “Room for Debate” section a group of five contributors, from a variety of backgrounds, are gathered to ponder the question, “have college freshmen changed?”

Spurred by the back-to-school season, as well as the recent tragic news from Rutgers, the Times asked the panel to discuss if social, academic, and financial pressures on freshmen are becoming more intense? How do helicopter parents fit into the equation?

It’s an interesting question and an interesting mix on the panel. There are three psychology professors, an economics professor, and the author of a book called A Nation of Whimps. (Mmmmmm. Pretty sure I can guess what side she is going to come down on this argument.)

I don’t want to give away all the revelations and opinions. (Okay, totally abridged version: students aren’t resilient; are too connected to parents; don’t study as much; and a college education is seen as a purchase or investment.) But it’s a good read,  and many of the readers’ comments will either get you vigorously nodding in agreement, or shaking in anger.

Take a look and then share your thoughts in our comments section. What’s your professional opinion? Have freshmen changed, and how?

Backgrounding While Looking Forward

Conducting background checks on prospective students is an occasional topic of conversation on ACUHO-I’s forums and listserv. Most institutions don’t do it, usually for a variety of reasons–logistics, expense and doubts about efficacy–but a few do. And many are often curious about the process and usefulness of the results. So when I saw this story on Inside HigherEd on conducting background checks on potential students, I thought of y’all.

Inside HigherEd’s article is based on a panel discussion that took place at the National Association of College and University Attorneys annual meeting. In addition to the  complications mentioned above,the possibility of creating an unwelcome atmosphere for students–either those with criminal histories who intend to stay on the straight-and-narrow, or law-abiding students who simply feel uncomfortable with the privacy issues involved.

On the panel was Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Nassirian discussed an AACRAO survey on backgrounding: While 66% of respondents reported collecting some information on arrests, convictions and crimes, only about 6% of those conduct background checks. A representative of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington said that school only requests background checks from a minority of students whose applications “raise red flags.” The students pay the $20 fee.

Some on the panel wondered if future behavior can be determined by background checks. People change rapidly in their teens and twenties, and young adults are known for making stupid mistakes. Most will never repeat those mistakes again. Also, some information on criminal background is self-reported, which limits its reliability.

Does your institution conduct background checks? Has it been considered? What’s the reasoning for doing so–or not?

Keep ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em: Retention at Xavier University

In 1980, only three of every four Xavier University freshmen would return for a second year. Fewer than that would eventually graduate. These days at Xavier, a university with 6,996 students in Cincinnati, nine of every ten students return for their second year, and eight of ten ultimately graduate in six years. What changed? Not the students–they’re essentially, academically and fiscally, the same. It was Xavier’s retention efforts.

Adrian A. Schiess, as director for student success and retention, devotes his days to ensuring students who want to persist at Xavier are able to do so. He’s held the directorship since 1990; he was a professor at Xavier before that. Students with issues that may prevent them from continuing their educations are referred to Schiess. He’s assisted with many financial concerns–the most common problem–as well as mental health, academic and interpersonal issues. Post-freshmen year “melt” is a big concern for Xavier and most other institutions; freshmen drift and don’t return as sophomores. Thanks to Schiess’s and his staff’s efforts, Xavier’s freshmen retention rate is 86% for the last three years. (It was a bit higher, but the economy tamped it down.) This is better than the national mean for similar institutions, at 81.4%. Many problems that would prevent students from returning can be resolved. Often students who need extra help, whether in the form of financial aid, counseling or tutoring, are simply unsure of where to find it, and unfamiliar with navigating offices and advocating for themselves. Schiess’s office helps them do that, making it more likely the student will graduate, and strengthening the student’s bond with Xavier, the school that stuck with them.

Is there someone–or someones–on your campus whose entire job is devoted to retention? How does the housing office work with that person? If there isn’t a “retention position,” what efforts fill the gap?

What They Think When They’re Still Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed

Okay, that post title might be a bit cynical. But forgive me; it’s January in Ohio. I’m feeling a bit cynical, just like everyone in the Midwest does during these gray days of winter.

Anyway, once again America’s college freshmen have been surveyed for their opinions on everything from politics, to society, to what they’ll be when they grow up. According to the freshmen:

Most, 66.7%, have major or some concerns about paying for college. Just over 53% plan to cover some expenses with loans. Both of these numbers are up slightly since 2004.

Perhaps because of this, a vast majority of respondents, 78.1%, say “being very well off financially is an essential or very important goal.” According to the U.S. Census 2008 Current population survey, all those under 65 with a bachelor’s degree have mean earnings of $58,613, but y’know, bright eyes, bushy tails, all that. And $58K is hardly shabby.

So what have the future titans of America been doing in the meantime?

Well, 66.5% take notes in class; 53.9% ask questions in class; 57.8% support their opinions with logical arguments (that won’t be necessary for the 20.8% who plan to influence the political structure); and 30.9% research topics independently, when not required for class. While 51.2% “seek solutions to problems and explain them to others,” fewer are interested in  seeking solutions to problems they have: 47.3% look for feedback on academic work, and 46.6% revise their papers to improve their writing.

Many, 44%, identify as politically moderate. About 24% say they’re conservative or far right; 31.8% say they are liberal or far left. Students who identify with either political extreme are in a tiny minority; less than 4%.  On major issues of the day, 64.9% feel same-sex couples should be able to legally married; 62.8% feel only volunteers should serve in the armed services and 37.4% feel students from “disadvantaged social backgrounds” should be given preferential treatment for college admissions.

In addition to piles of money (perhaps to swim laps in, a’la Scrooge McDuck), most of our freshmen hope to have a family (74.7%), help others in difficulty (69.1%), and become authorities in their fields (58.5%). Fewer hope to excel in the creative arts; about 16% want to create artistic works, such as sculptures and paintings; 16% wish to become accomplished in a performing art, and 16% hope to create original works such as poems or novels. Hopefully, these students aren’t the same ones who find it extremely important to be wealthy. My post-college life has been very clear on one thing: creativity is nice, but it doesn’t bring in the big bucks.

As for their parents, 46.5% of respondents have fathers who do not have a college degree; 45.2% of their mothers don’t have one either.

During their first term, most plan on living in the residence halls (79.5%); 14.2% live with family, 2.8% live in a private apartment or house and 2.7% live in some other form of campus housing.

To see these numbers and more, check out The American Freshman: Fall Norms for Fall 2009, published by the University of California – Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute. The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Higher Education Research Institute have conflicting numbers when it comes to how many students were surveyed and how many institutions were involved. If we can get some clarification, we’ll post it here.

And keep in mind, if they were in Ohio in January when the survey was conducted, their answers might have been a lot different.

Four Lists For a New Academic Year

1. Tips for Parents of College Freshmen: These are good, solid, if not ground-breaking tips: Establish ground rules about money; sbe helpful but don’t try to fix everything; it’s okay if your son or daughter is undecided about a major or changes it (once or a few times). What would you add to this list? Do you provide such lists for parents of incoming freshmen? Do you think parents rely on them?

2. Advice from Those Who Have Been There, Done That: College graduates offer their advice to incoming freshmen, from “join an extracurricular activity” to “bring the things you really care about, even if they’re ‘childish.’” Once again, we ask: What would you add to this list?

3. 10 People You Should Know on MU’s [the University of Missouri] Campus: Who are the 10 people on your campus that freshmen should know?

4. The fourth is this list! Very meta of us, huh?

Thank You For Choosing [Institution]. Here’s Your [Quirky Gift]!

Whitman College, located in the mightily-fun-to-say Walla Walla Washington, sends their incoming freshmen a box of sweet onions to welcome them to the community. We blogged about the issue of “summer melt” a few weeks ago; Wabash College attempts to staunch this by sending incoming freshmen t-shirts, then requesting the students post a picture of themselves wearing it. Does your institution send any gifts to freshmen over the summer to reinforce their college choice?

Life On Campus

Last weekend brought us the Education Life supplement in The New York Times. Obviously, it’s one of our favorite pieces to look through to see what others have to say about the higher ed profession.

For this issue, the paper tapped a number of students to write their reflections on the freshman life; many of which should be familiar to ACUHO-I members. There are stories of roommate squabbles, a student writes of her efforts to avoid common freshmen failings, and another recounts her economic struggles, along with other tales.

Another article profiles The Gen-1 Theme House at the University of Cincinnati. (Sound familiar? It was profiled in the latest issue of The Talking Stick.) Finally, helpful charts show what United States campuses send the most students to study abroad and which ones accept the most students from outside the U.S.

Lots of good material here. Check it out and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Nonprofits for First-Generation Students

This story in the Boston Globecaught my eye. The Boston Foundation, a clearinghouse for charity dollars in Beantown, is giving $655,000 this year to several nonprofits that help students apply for college, request financial aid, and adjust to college life. Among the recipients is Bottom Line, an organization that says its students graduate from college at the same rates as more affluent, advantaged students do. Many institutions have programs that offer similar help, usually for lower-income or first-generation students, whose parents aren’t able to offer a great deal of monetary or social support for their college lives. The Boston Globe article, and similar ones I found, made me wonder… do nonprofit programs work with your institutions, your R.A.s, hall directors, and counselors? Are these partnerships formalized or on an as-needed basis? Comment here.

What They Don’t Know

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement, (SENSE) the first-year student, community college counterpart to the National Survey of Student Engagement is still in its formative stages. However, SENSE results have already suggested issues for further study.

SENSE’s findings, released last week, suggest that first-year community college students don’t take advantage of the campus resources because they don’t know about them. Most students were able to register for classes and get other necessary paperwork completed, but didn’t know about remedial courses, tutoring, or their adviser’s ability to assist with schedule planning and prioritizing.

The Second Worst Thing You Can Do

“It is also not deliberately designed to make readers feel really old!”

That’s a disclaimer from the introduction to the 2008 Beloit College Mindset List from the study authors, Ron Nief, Director of Public Affairs and Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of the Humanities and Professor of English. Intentional or not, however, that’s the result.

This year’s freshmen-the class of 2012-enter college with the following life experience:

  • Seinfeld has always existed.
  • The doctor has always used an ear thermometer for temperature-taking.
  • The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno.
  • IBM has never made typewriters.
  • Harry Potter would be a college freshman now. (If you needcollege after finishing at Hogwart’s.)

Now that we’ve tortured ourselves with that (more at the link if you’re masochistic), this 2000 grad (that’s two years before the first Beloit Mindset for those of you keeping score) is going to take a Centrum Silver (circa. 1990) and lie down for a little while.

The youth…they are so young.