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where there's smoke: A building under construction next to the Logan Police Station caught fire from a welder's spark. Damage was estimated at $50,000. / Photo by Gideon Oakes

Today's word on journalism

August 27, 2008

On protests at political conventions:

"The citizens of Denver and St. Paul, and Americans everywhere, should hope officials in those cities already have considered both the constitutional and monetary costs of silencing voices that have a right to be heard. . . . Well-expressed or wacky. Irritating or illuminating. Respectful or raucous. There's nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendment that sets out any such qualifications or limits on protests. Time and again in our history, from women's suffrage to civil rights to tax protests, to name just some, voices first raised in the streets -- to the disgust or disappointment of some -- have led to significant, positive changes in law and American life."

--Gene Policinski, executive director, First Amendment Center, 2008

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Finding a niche, a sense of belonging in freshman year called key to retention

By Tonnie Dixon

May 9, 2008 | Chelsea Parker was like most freshmen when she started college: excited, nervous and hopeful for what was to come. She applied to Dixie State College with a friend and began her first semester in the fall of 2005, after high school.

Parker ended up going alone after her friend bailed to attend Southern Utah University three months prior to the beginning of the semester. Hardly attending classes, working 35 hours a week and being six hours away from her home and family, was the way Parker was spending her first year of college.

Not sure of what she wanted to do, Parker began the interior design program but became bored with classes because it was the same things she had learned in high school and she said felt the advisers didn't take much interest in her chosen major and didn't spend adequate time helping her.

"I didn't really feel like I was learning anything because everything was just kind of a shuffle game," Parker said. "Nobody was willing to sit down. And it was just kind of hard because everyone was like, ‘Oh, you're an interior design major? We've got more important things to do.'"

After spending two years at Dixie State, Parker decided college wasn't for her.

Noelle Call, director of USU's Retention and First Year Experience, said, "One of the biggest things with student success is not only the academic preparation but that the student finds at the university that they feel that they matter; that they belong; that they have found a niche. If they don't find that niche, even if they're doing well academically, (their grades are fine) quite often they'll leave if they have no commitment, no connection to the University.

Parker said if she would have found a niche she would have had a better experience.

"In interior design, if I wouldn't have been so bored and found a little more direction in it by an adviser saying, ‘If you take these classes, you'll be done in this amount of time.' I think if would have been able to do something that interests me and stop doing the redundant stuff that I had already done, I definitely would have stayed with it."

Call said, surveys on students who leave college often say they just didn't feel like they belonged there. And sometimes it is not an academic issue; it just isn't a good fit.

"If a student came here looking for Oceanography, it's not a good fit here at Utah State for Oceanography. But sometimes they just didn't get connected and the research backs it up over and over again," Call said. "That one person can make a difference, one faculty member. Campus jobs are also really good retention efforts because quite often they get connected to an office."

Call said USU has many LDS missionaries who leave the university for two years and quite often come back and finish their education.

"They quite often attend this first year and then they leave. So we do an adjusted rate when we calculate retention numbers," Call said. "They take the missionary numbers out because we keep track of who leaves and then they are put back in when they return. If we didn't take them out, then our retention rate is considerably lower."

In April 2008, USU's retention rate was 73 percent compared to the national average of 86 percent.

Reasons for why students leave is never a sure thing, Call said.

"Well, of course there is the missionary phenomenon, but we try and find out why students don't come back and the number one that they indicate over repeatedly is financial. After that, it's family problems. The one that they don't report but we sometimes worry about is that they weren't academically prepared. There was some research that shows that students will respond that financial is why they left but that's because that's [socially] ok to say it's financial, it's not [socially] ok to say it was too hard. On surveys, you'll see finance is the number one reason why they leave and then after that family issues," Call said.

Research also shows that just showing up to class is a big part of the grade, Call said.

Parker said that was her problem.

"My first year I skipped a lot. I think it was honestly because I went right after high school and I went so far away from home. I think if I would have stayed closer, I would have been able to get the help I needed. I was so young," Parker said.

Retention is also a national concern. The number of students who start college to the number of students who actually graduate from college are significantly lower. It is a real concern, Call said. Sometimes students don't say in school because of the economy. If jobs are available they don't stay. When jobs aren't available, they look for more education.

One major issue with losing students is every time retention goes down, the university loses funding from the State, Call said.

"There is information out there; dollars and cents that you could put on a student's head, that's not really how we like to talk but the reality is when we lose a student, we lose funding," Call said.

Funding not only pays many salaries on campus but its operating money for projects for students.

"So everybody should really value if students stay or not," Call said. "Understanding, that some students should not be staying; it's not their time in life to be doing this right now. So we help them find other options where they can be successful right now."

USU's efforts in retaining students are involving incoming freshmen in programs such as SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) and Connections. SOAR is a mandatory program, unless one lives more than 400 miles away from campus, that helps new students register for classes, tour the campus and ask questions about the university. Connections is a voluntary class that starts a week before the semesters begins to help students once again learn their way around campus and easing their way into the college setting.

The Retention and First Year Experience's website states, "Retention is defined as everything the institution undertakes to improve the quality of student life and learning for its students."

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