Correct approach can aid freshmen retention

Keeping freshmen enrolled for a full year — and past their first year — has proven difficult for NIU.

NIU should focus on three issues that plague incoming freshmen: Tailoring general education requirements to majors, implementing effective financial advising and assuring incoming freshmen they can’t get the same services at a less-expensive community college.

Gen. eds

Gen. eds require a lot of reading, studying and other classwork that many students don’t feel is worth the reward of being well-rounded.

General education coordinator Michael Kolb said potential changes are geared to enhance gen. eds for undergraduates, but it’s important to expose students to other content.

“Majors focus on content and depth, where general education focuses on breadth,” Kolb said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Though it’s important for students to understand a range of subjects, the structure of gen. eds is not conducive to that. Heavy-headed students often trudge to their core classes and are not excited to learn the material.

This isn’t to say every class must transform into a three-credit-hour joyride, but a professor in a crammed lecture hall barking at sleepy-eyed students isn’t ideal.

Kolb said there are five areas covered by the Progressive Learning in Undergraduate Education Task Force — or NIU PLUS — to improve the structure of gen. ed requirements and student success if and when the changes take place.

The PLUS website said the focuses are to “employ the university-wide student learning goals and outcomes at the baccalaureate level; enhance writing expectations; improve cross-disciplinary synergy in general education course content exposure; increase curricular flexibility and general education course choices and formalize student participation in high impact practices and engaged learning opportunities.”

National data indicates these five specific areas increase retention and graduation rates, Kolb said.

If that’s true, the pending overhaul of gen. eds could be a good step in retaining more freshmen.

Financial advising

NIU should offer incoming freshmen more information on financial advising.

Some freshmen rely on scholarships and financial aid to ease the financial sting of higher education. But, many students are not aware that some scholarships require students to reapply each semester and more become available through their majors as they progress.

The NIU website offers scholarships for freshmen, but financial advising needs to go beyond helping students get scholarships. A system in which students meet with a financial adviser each semester — similar to academic advisers — could ease the financial burden.

Another solution to helping incoming freshmen is to incorporate financial aid-specific orientation sessions. Students who begin college may have no idea how financial aid works or how to correctly handle issues that arise from it. NIU should make sure students are prepared for the responsibilities college life brings outside of a classroom.

Services at NIU vs. services at community colleges

Financial concerns often pose an intimidating burden for freshmen to stay at a four-year university. As a result, community colleges become a more viable option for students focused entirely on money.

To work with that issue, NIU needs to remind its students this university has more to offer them than a community college.

“It’s the experience,” said Brad Hoey, director of communications and marketing. “I think that when you get into the residential situation … you have a tendency to have a little bit more commitment [to NIU]. Most community colleges don’t have that residential experience. It’s a little bit more transitional.”

Hoey said community colleges lack the services available in the residence halls at NIU: Residential Technology, the Housing and Dining Resource Center and the Residence Hall Association.

But going to college is more than the residence hall experience. Given rising costs of tuition and loan debt, it’s hard to sell a residential experience if students want to save money.

NIU needs to convince students — especially freshmen — the money they pay is being reciprocated through the services and education available to them.

“There are a lot of resources set up, and sometimes it’s just a matter of letting students … know where they are,” Hoey said.

If communication is the issue, it’s an easy fix. Whatever gets information directly to the students in the most efficient way will stick.

It’s just as important for freshmen to take advantage of the services available as it is for the university to make those services accessible.