Peter Jelsma left the University in spring 1997 just a few credits shy of entering his sophomore year. He had every intention of returning the next fall to continue his chemistry studies, but lack of money and direction changed his mind.
He still hasn’t returned.
Neither have about 700 of his 4,458 freshmen cohorts.
Most students enter their first year of college expecting to graduate within four or five years. Some students, however, never make it beyond their first year.
A university’s rate of freshmen retention is a determining factor in how that college is ranked by nationwide yearly reports, such as one published in September’s U.S. News and World Report.
The report ranked the University 18th out of 147 surveyed public national universities in overall quality.
The University’s average retention rate throughout the last four years is 84 percent, according to the report. That means about one of every six students did not return for their sophomore year.
Public institutions’ average rate of retention is 72 percent, according to the latest data from ACT, Inc., an educational and research service organization.
University counselors and administrators say there are a number of reasons freshmen decide to abandon University life: feelings of alienation, loneliness, insignificance or discouragement are some common problems.
Other freshmen are too involved in student culture — either with too much partying or, conversely, too many academic credits — and can’t keep up with their studies.
Scott Slattery, acting director of the University’s Learning and Academic Skills Center, said a freshman’s lack of self-discipline and responsibility in high school is another reason some of the students find the switch to college life disabling.
High school administration, Slattery explained, tends to dictate students’ academic schedules, while parents monitor their study time. High schoolers rarely take on sole responsibility for time management.
When these students enter college, they must learn how to balance their academic and personal lives themselves.
“They really don’t anticipate the effort that goes into making that happen,” Slattery explained. “They’ll get behind because they don’t know how to how to balance their time … and they might start to become quite anxious. Then their work tends to fall off maybe even more.”
This may lead to stress or depression, he cautioned.
Freshmen more susceptible to dropping out of college are first-generation students and students of color, said Ron Matross, executive vice president for the office of the provost. The issues, he explained, are twofold: inadequate academic preparation and feelings of alienation from fellow students.
“They need someone to care about how they do, and to talk to them when they’re feeling lonely or having problems and all sorts of issues,” Matross said.
The population of students of color has grown to about 17 percent of this year’s freshmen class, he added.
While Jelsma does not fall into either category, he attributes his decision to leave the University to newfound freedom.
“I just don’t think I was quite ready for it,” he said. “Just personally, maybe even emotionally. It’s kind of weird, the first time you’re away from home and you’re kind of independent on your own. I guess there was just a little too much stuff happening at once.”
University counselors recommend freshmen live in residence halls and become active on campus as “a way of breaking the large University into smaller communities,” said Wayne Sigler, University director of admissions.
While adding that commuting students are also successful, Sigler said freshmen students who live on campus benefit from residence hall study groups and their proximity to campus libraries and learning centers.
“We believe (freshmen’s) chances of doing well are enhanced by being in the residence halls,” he said.
Yet by living in a hall, Jelsma found himself a little too involved in student life — both from too many parties and stressful coursework.
“(Freshmen) are facing so many different temptations and distractions that they’ve never faced before,” Slattery said. “They need to know when to say no to certain things and how to balance out the social, the personal and the academic demands that they have.”
Advice for the perplexed
Officials say freshmen debating whether University life is right for them should speak to a counselor before making their final decision to leave.
Counselors will help them look at their options, said Glenn Hirsch, University Counseling and Consulting Services assistant director.
This might include individual or group counseling and workshops, looking at ways students can improve their academic standings or advice on how to get better acclimated to University culture.
“(College) is like taking a very healthy plant,” Sigler said. “Even if you moved it from one pot to another, there is an adjustment. You want to do everything you can to help it adjust well in the new place.”
Yet, despite the services and programs available to them, some freshmen might still find the campus size and environment intimidating. Counselors often then advise students to transfer to a smaller college.
For students who feel unmotivated or have no clear vision of their academic progress, counselors might, as a last resort, even suggest they take some time off from college.
“Frequently we find that students do come back, and when they do come back, they tend to be much better students,” Hirsch said, “because they have spent more time maturing and thinking about why going to college is worthwhile for them.”
Jelsma is still considering whether a college degree will benefit his current career as a rock musician in the band Manplanet.
“I guess I had always kind of planned on eventually getting back,” he said. “Even if what I’m doing now is making me enough money, I’d still like to get an education.”
Tess Langfus can be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217 and welcomes comments at [email protected]