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September 8, 2003

New Program Aims To Help Freshmen Succeed

Although UConn fares well in national rankings for retention and graduation rates, the University's faculty and administrators would like the numbers to be higher still. A new program to help freshmen better handle the transition from high school to college may provide that boost.

The program calls on faculty to provide the registrar's office with a list of all students who are struggling in their 100s-level courses after six weeks of classes. The registrar, in turn, will notify each student's advisor, First Year Experience instructor, and residence hall director, who can help direct the student to the range of academic support resources available at UConn.

Overall, UConn fares well in rankings for student retention and graduation among public research universities nationally. In the most recent data available from the Office of Institutional Research, the University tied for 19th place in freshman retention, at 88 percent; and tied for 15th place in its six-year graduation rate, at 70 percent. But, says Fred Maryanski, vice chancellor for academic administration, the rates can always be better.

"Even if there were only 50 students who left us because of academic difficulties, that's too many," he says. "We have so many resources available to help students who are struggling. This program is an attempt to connect the students who are troubled to those resources, so they can learn the skills they need not only to move on to their second year, but to succeed at higher levels too."

The new regulation was incorporated into the by-laws, rules, and regulations of the University Senate in May.

The "early warning system" is a major undertaking, says Jeff von Munkwitz-Smith, university registrar.

"We really want to help students succeed," he says. "The University has a lot of resources on hand to help them, and often it's just a matter of connecting a student with the right person.

"Sometimes the student just needs a wake-up call," he adds. "Sometimes they have blinders on, or they're trying to rationalize their situation. We'd like to take those blinders off and help them progress."

Resources available to all students include the Office of Special Programs, which offers academic and life skills training; a range of tutoring programs; the Writing Resource Center; and UConn Connects, says von Munkwitz-Smith.

It has been years since UConn professors have formally submitted mid-term grades to the registrar's office, Maryanski says. But last year, during a discussion of ways to improve retention, Maryanski, von Munkwitz-Smith, and Veronica Makowsky, associate dean of liberal arts and sciences, decided to explore the possibility of giving newer students a mid-term assessment of their progress, with a view to offering help in a timely way, if needed.

"This is designed to get the students some help early on in their career," says Makowsky, "and to set things in place for them to succeed."

The new system seeks faculty input after six weeks, rather than the more traditional eight, because the students who stand to benefit are new to college life and are probably not aware of the resources available.

"If you wait too long, especially with freshmen, it quickly gets beyond the point where the class is salvageable," Makowsky says.

The plan calls on faculty to notify the registrar's office regarding any student who is carrying a D, F, U (unsatisfactory), or N (no grade). The registrar's office will then notify the student's advisor and First Year Experience instructor, and also residence hall director, in case part of the problem is noise, rowdy neighbors, or other distractions.

Support staff will be asked to make the students aware of the seriousness of the situation, von Munkwitz-Smith says, and to lead them to the resources that can help them get back on track.

"A lot of people here are concerned about our students and interested in helping them succeed," he says. "I hope we get a lot of faculty participation, so we can reach out to more students."

Maryanski is confident faculty in 100-level courses will participate. He says he will follow up with the registrar, deans, and department heads to review the process after the submission period ends. The six-week point this semester occurs on Oct. 7.

During a pilot program last fall, von Munkwitz-Smith says, about 400 warnings were issued to students, out of more than 6,500 course registrations.

He says the results of the pilot were promising. Many of the 176 students who were notified of poor grades in Psychology 132, for instance, were able to successfully complete the course after intervention; other students rebounded to pass English and geography courses in which they were struggling. The results were less positive in Chemistry 127, however, where data suggested students who were not well prepared for the course continued to have trouble despite intervention.

The new program will be reported on PeopleSoft. Staff from the registrar's office and information technology services are currently working together to prepare the system to distribute early warnings, once the information begins arriving Oct. 7.

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