Here, students get paid to see Wayne Newton

Beginning next fall, incoming freshmen at William Woods University here are going to have a whole lot more pizza money in their pockets.

The question is: Will they have time to eat it, too?

A pioneering program at this small Midwest college will offer next year's freshmen $5,000 off their $13,200 annual tuition for simply attending a set number of campus activities - from horse shows to harp concerts.

It is a radical answer to a challenge liberal-arts schools across the country are struggling with: how to lure today's introverted students out of their dorm rooms, which now often double as electronic caves, and broaden their cultural experience.

"You're going to see more of this kind of program," says William Willimon, a professor at Duke University Divinity School and co-author of a book that touches on the absence of community in higher education. "Colleges have come through a couple of decades where they have focused on what students do in the classroom but have shown little interest in what kids are doing outside class."

The structure of William Woods University's LEAD - Leading, Educating, And Developing - program is purposely simple. Students who choose to participate will receive an immediate $5,000 credit, then be required to amass 45 extracurricular-activity points during the school year.

The points are weighted: 3 for participation in class government, for example, 0.5 for attending an athletic event.

In other words, students may have to learn to love art exhibits, guest lectures, and avant-garde films - the cultural equivalent of broccoli -to earn their rebate.

But most don't seem to mind. "It's cool," says Carl Sweezer, a high school senior in Fulton, who was visiting the campus recently. Wearing a V-neck sweater over a T-shirt and sporting a pair of earrings and a goatee, he said of the LEAD program: "It was big factor in my decision to come here."

LEAD resulted from the confluence of two enduring debates on campus. The first was concern over the steady decline in student involvement in cultural events, which is blamed primarily on the growing tendency of dorm dwellers to camp out in their rooms with a Circuit City's worth of electronic gear.

What started with TVs and stereos has now spread to DVDs and MP3 players. No longer is mom's care package the most prized possession in a dorm. Now it's a surge protector. William Woods President Jahnae Barnett notes that the phenomenon isn't something that overtakes students once they get to campus. Kids now grow up in such isolation, in electronic cocoons, that luring them out of their dorm rooms requires a substantial enticement - critics might call it a bribe.

The other force behind the LEAD program is the growing complexity of financial aid. Even Lance Kramer, the university's dean of academic affairs, was bewildered when he went college shopping for his child recently. "Even though I've been in this business for 30 years, the financial packaging was a mystery," he says.

Parents often see the cost of tuition and immediately discount the university, says Mary Hawk, the dean of admissions. And those that see past the initial price are often stymied by the bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through to win aid. William Woods found itself losing potential students to other institutions that were quicker to assemble attractive aid offers.

LEAD is intended to combat that. Yet five months after the program was first conceived, the kinks are still being worked out - like how to keep track of points.

The favored option at the moment is an ID card with a magnetic strip to record attendance at events. Of course, after students swipe their card, they could repair to the electronic playpen in their dorm room, but administrators hope the law of inertia will keep them in the seats once they get to an activity.

"We recently had Wayne Newton here for a concert," says Mr. Barnett. "Some of the kids had never even heard of him and were moaning about going. Well, I insisted they go. I watched their faces. They were enraptured. One boy came up to me afterward and said, 'Dr. Barnett, anything you tell me to go to from now on, I'll go.' "

Overall, administrators are convinced the program will have a dynamic impact over the long run at the 130-year-old school, known nationally for its equestrian-studies program.

"We need to prepare people who are adaptable, who think creatively, understand the process of change, can live with ambiguity, and believe in perpetual education," says Mr. Kramer. He notes surveys claiming that two-thirds of the jobs that will exist in 2020 didn't exist in 1990, and adds: "The LEAD program helps achieve those goals."

Some schools are taking the opposite approach to the issue of student noninvolvement, using a stick instead of William Woods' carrot. At Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., cable TV was cut off to dormitories. Needless to say, the students protested.

So far, the LEAD program seems to be working on at least one level. Although still new, administrators credit news of its inception with increasing applications by 5 percent in just the past month.

A small increase in enrollment will be needed to bolster the LEAD program financially. Measuring its other impact - on students' cultural enlightenment - may be more difficult. "What we're trying to accomplish," says Kramer, "is the work of a lifetime."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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