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Thanks to Gardner and other higher-education experts, a movement is spreading to ensure that students exit with degrees. Backed by 30 years of experimentation and data, Gardner and other academics have established that colleges can boost freshman retention by:
--training faculty to mentor and support new students; --creating first-year seminars, orientation courses and intimate "learning communities;" --teaching students organizational and study skills; and --arranging dorms so that freshmen live among students with similar academic interests.
First-year seminars have entered the higher-education mainstream, with 71% of the more than 4,000 accredited U.S. campuses offering such courses. About 85% of freshmen take them, and the survival rate of students who take the courses is 3% to 10% better than that of students who do not. These courses often provide the basis for cohesive learning communities, which spark intellectual confidence among their members. At Drury University in Missouri, for instance, orientation groups of 20 students meet with a faculty mentor three times a week during freshman year to analyze the ideas that shape life in America.
Residential colleges face the challenge of assimilating a diverse student body and seeing that the students live as well as learn in harmony. Harvard requires incoming freshmen to read a booklet of essays on diversity by such writers as Henry Louis Gates and Ralph Waldo Emerson. During orientation, they are put in small groups to discuss the essays with faculty. "Students rate this one of the most powerful events of the entire orientation," says Richard Light, professor of education at Harvard and author of Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds.
In selecting our 2001 Colleges of the Year from among candidates recommended by our advisory board, the editors sought institutions with comprehensive freshman programs that have improved retention rates and created a sense of community for students. Amid a rapidly growing movement, the hardest part was choosing among so many impressive candidates. We believe they offer good news for other colleges looking for ways to turn raw freshmen into studious sophomores--and ultimately into productive alumni.
--With reporting by Constance E. Richards/Brevard, N.C.
*OTHER PANELISTS: Richard Guarasci, provost and senior vice president, Wagner College; George Kuh, chancellor's professor and director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, Indiana University, Bloomington; Cecilia Lopez, associate director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; Roberta Matthews, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Brooklyn College; and Kay McClenney, senior associate of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning.