by Charles Bucher
Daily Cougar Staff
The percentage of freshman students who leave four-year institutions before becoming sophomores has reached a record high, according to a report by the American College Testing Program.
According to an article in Friday's Chronicle of Higher Education, the ACT found that the number of freshmen, who dropped out after their first year of college, has risen by 2.4 percent since 1983, for a total of 26.9 percent of freshmen who don't return to school.
The trend is more apparent in public institutions, where overall dropout rates are at all-time highs. The picture would be much bleaker if many colleges were not already developing programs to keep students from dropping out, said Kelley Hayden, a spokesman for the ACT.
Before the study was published, many institutions had already implemented various programs to stem the rising tide of dropouts. Approaches include intensive orientation, peer advising, streamlining admissions and financial aid office procedures, and publishing special editions of campus newspapers geared towards freshmen.
Some colleges even employ a full-time retention coordinator to keep track of students who may be at risk of dropping out while finding ways to help them.
These efforts may not be enough, Hayden said, without more student financial aid. Increasing tuition and the shift of federal student aid money from grants to loans have forced students to take out more loans than ever, he said, and many students realize only after their first year that they cannot manage the debt.
"I'm sure not many congressmen thought 'This is going to cause people to drop out of school,' but everything has its effects," he said.
Many students also work full-time to avoid the heavy debt that comes with a college education, taking six or more years to complete their degrees.
The ACT study also reported a decline in the proportion of students who graduate within five years. For students who entered college in fall 1991, only 53.3 percent had graduated by May 1996.
The decline is more apparent at public institutions than at private colleges where enrollment is traditionally more stable.
Ed Apodaca, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Houston, said that the study's figures are consistent with those collected at UH, but added that the study's results are somewhat misleading.
"The results of the study don't reflect these students who aren't dropping out of school completely," Apodaca said.
Most of the 25 to 30 percent of students who drop out of UH leave in good academic standing, he said.
"A huge percentage of our students here are older," he said. "They work full-time and drop out for one semester then come back next semester when they can afford it. Other students transfer to different institutions, where they will eventually graduate."
Jim Allsey, a former scholarship recipient, was a traditional freshman who dropped out of UH completely after two semesters.
"I wasn't nearly prepared to go to classes with over a hundred students, and with virtually no enrollment checks after the first few classes," he said. "I felt like a needle in a haystack. Looking back, however, I know that there were programs in place to help students like me, but I always found it tremendously difficult to ask for help or to even admit to myself that I needed it."
Although it has been a "number of years" since he left UH, Allsey said he still intends to return one day.
"When I do go back, I know that if I need help, it's there," he said. "All I have to do is ask, although I still wonder what happens to those students who are too afraid to ask, like I was."
Gail Hudson, Staff Psychologist with the Counseling and Testing Center at UH, said that all students adjust to academic life differently, depending on the individual.
"Students have to come to terms with the change in environments when they enroll in college," she said. "There are a lot of new responsibilities, as well as risks. Some students have supportive family and friends, but we try to make it known to everyone that they can certainly come to us even before they reach a crisis point."
Two of the programs aimed at student assistance are the Challenger Program for first generation college students and the Learning Support Services, which help with academic studies. The Counseling Center is very active in the orientation process, Hudson said a program for parents that shows what their children will be facing.
"I like to promote a very strong, positive connection to the campus," she said. "Almost 90 percent of UH students are commuters. The more we can get students to feel connected with the campus, the better off they'll be."
Apodaca said he is also concerned about the pressures of getting an education in the 90's.
"A long time ago most students would graduate in four years," he said. "Parents would save money for their children's college fund, but now more and more students are paying their own bills and they're also taking longer to complete school. We need to realize that we have a student population that is very different from that of the 50's, 60's and 70's."
He added that over 40 percent of UH students are part-time students, and added, "I have difficulty with the old philosophy that you absolutely must graduate from college in four years."
Apodaca said that the administration is currently working to get the supply and demand for education to fit together.
"We're developing contracts with the local community colleges on overlapping certain academic programs and strengthening the transferability of courses," he said.
Kelley Hayden said that one of the best ways to ensure that students stay in college to finish their degrees is to make sure they know exactly what they're getting into from the start, both academically and financially.
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