This may be college, but we're still taking attendance

Colleges try to stem dropout rates by reaching out to students who skip classes.

When Walter Diehl looks around the lecture hall each morning before his freshman zoology class begins, the professor ticks off names on a list - and may find 15 or more of his 180 students missing.

That part of taking attendance is pretty standard. But what comes next makes Professor Diehl's class and other freshmen classes at Mississippi State University seem almost revolutionary.

First, Diehl reports the absences to a special tracking program called Pathfinder, which funnels the names into a database. Next, any freshman who cuts classes more than twice is identified for an ever-so-gentle chat with school personnel.

Then, in brief discussions in their dorm rooms, a resident assistant gives the missing-in-action freshmen a pamphlet with campus phone numbers and resources to help them with studies. But the student also gets a pointed reminder: Cutting class can damage or derail a college career.

"Class attendance is a major predictor for us of college success," says Ty Abernathy, a social scientist with the program who trains resident assistants not to be too overbearing. Nobody wants a return to in loco parentis, the model of the 1960s, when colleges acted "in place of the parent" in overseeing student life.

So far, the simple and relatively cheap three-year-old attendance plan is getting good results: Grades are moving up - and so is class attendance. More freshmen are returning for their sophomore year. But the real payoff, researchers say, will come a few years from now, with expected higher graduation rates.

"As long as students are staying in class and making better grades, they should be able to graduate," says David McMillen, a professor of sociology who heads the program and first persuaded faculty and administrators to give it a try. "We think it will work, but we won't really know about the bottom line until 2004."

When one-third don't graduate

Mississippi State's unusual program is part of a much larger hunt for ways to solve one of the biggest problems afflicting American higher education: 1 of every 3 college students won't graduate.

That might seem surprising. Today there are a record 15 million students enrolled on American college campuses. It certainly looks as if the nation's higher education system is firing on all cylinders - producing the highly educated workforce the nation desperately needs.

It turns out, however, that while most schools are great at recruiting students with glossy brochures featuring lush campus scenes and posh dorm rooms, it's a different story when it comes to getting kids to graduate.

About 65 percent of all US citizens aged 25 to 29 who started college end up with nothing but maybe a student loan to show for their effort, according to Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Opportunity and Higher Education, a Washington think tank.

It's a costly problem for colleges, too - one that many are trying to solve. The practice of "enrollment management" has grown with the understanding of schools that it is far cheaper to retain students than to go out and recruit new ones, Mr. Mortenson says.

To hang on to more students, the focus for a decade has been on creating "freshmen retention" programs. That has typically meant creating more small seminar-style freshman classes, freshman research programs, and special dorms that try to create a small-college feel on big university campuses.

The whole idea is to better connect students and faculty in a more personal classroom setting. Research shows that when students are academically settled and feel connected to faculty, it can lead to a higher percentage of freshmen returning for their sophomore year. It also can aid the greater goal of higher graduation rates, experts say.

Even though colleges have spent big on such programs, it's not clear how effective they are. About 71 percent of all accredited undergraduate-degree-granting institutions now offer some kind of freshman-year seminar, says John Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College in North Carolina.

Still, today's graduation rates are better than in the past and may be due, in part, to such efforts, he and others say.

"In spite of all the breast beating over inadequate retention rates, I think higher education would have been a lot worse off if it hadn't made a lot of the changes they've been making over the last 20 years," he says.

Still, it is up to each institution to change its own structure to accommodate "at-risk" students who typically have less thorough academic preparation or come from families with fewer resources.

Better advising for students

Bowling Green State University in Ohio has succeeded in changing its structure. For the past two to three years, it has focused on getting students to declare a major earlier and to meet regularly with advisers. Research, school officials say, shows that if students don't declare a major quickly they may not return to school.

"We are not just waiting for students to come in if they have a question," says Lisa McHugh, director of academic enhancement at the university. "We are asking them [if] they thought about a major in this or that area."

Bowling Green has an additional hurdle. A large minority of students on campus are the first in their families to attend college and are particularly at risk of dropping out. Even so, the school's results are impressive: Instead of the "expected graduation rate" of 46 percent (which is based on the academic profile of the student body), the reality is that 58 percent of the students actually walk across the stage and get a diploma.

That 12 percentage point difference places Bowling Green third among 57 institutions in the "overperformance" category of graduation rates in a recent national ranking. The university also has improved its graduation rate for minority students by about nine percentage points over the past decade.

Mississippi State fared less well, placing in the middle of the same pack with a 4 percentage point "underperformance" - which means its actual graduation rate was 4 points less than what was projected.

Then again, that's the reason the Pathfinder program was developed. In 1997, before Pathfinder was started, 26 percent of students received less than a 2.0 grade-point average at the end of their freshman year. That has come down to 22 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, freshman retention has risen to 80 percent from 74 percent in the same period.

Spotting problems early

One key to Pathfinder's success is identifying students who skip class within days rather than weeks of the start of a semester. If students miss more than a few classes, they get too far behind to recover. And that can lead to someone dropping out. Which is why it is critical to persuade faculty not to drag their feet.

"We had to convince professors that they had to be accurate taking role and reporting it right away," Mr. McMillen says. "Of course, getting faculty to do anything as a group is like herding cats. Many at first viewed it as as a bureaucratic exercise. But when we convinced them we were really going to use this for good - they went for it."

• E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

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