Advantage of Theme Years: Student-School Bonding

With already tight schedules and high tuitions, why do colleges bother with the expense and work of theme years?

"Theme years help bind students to the institution and each other," says Steven Shelburne, associate professor of English at Centenary College in Shreveport, La. "But institutions also think this is a good idea for [student] retention and long-term fund-raising."

Last year, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., focused on "Religion in American Life." The historically Baptist school invited spiritual leaders and instructors from around the world to speak and teach.

The main reason for the event was to help freshmen early on develop critical thinking and writing skills, officials say. But it also helped, they believe, to shore up student spirit.

"We already have high retention rates," says Sandra Boyette, vice president for university advancement at Wake Forest. "But we found that if we lose them, it's during the freshman year."

Frederick Rudolph, professor emeritus at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a higher-education historian, says making students feel good also makes them more likely to be "contributing alumni."

"Administrators know that the effectiveness of the institution as an educational operation depends on more than what happens in the classroom," Dr. Rudolph says. "The question is: How do students see the institution? Whether they feel good about it, or indifferent, makes a difference," he says.

Kenneth Schwab, president of Centenary College, says the focus of the college's theme year is "to deepen the intellectual experience here." He adds, "as that deepens, I believe they will have a closer association with the school."

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