College Park devises a safety net for struggling students

July 14, 1991|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- If the past is a guide, 50 percent of the freshmen arriving for orientation this summer at the University of Maryland College Park will drop out without ever seeing a diploma.

The problem is acute. It affects the quality of academic life, the dreams of students and the pocketbooks of state taxpayers. Its causes are many, but chief among them are faulty management by the university in the past, and poor choices and unrealistic expectations by the students.

"What they really ought to do," said 25-year-old Patrick Delaney, as he sped away on a moped last week, golf clubs slung across his shoulder and a "School is Hell" slogan on his T-shirt, "is to get a group of kids in a corner and tell it like it is: The school is big, the lines are long; it's better to drop a class you think you might fail 'cause it'll count against you and eventually you get kicked out; and if you don't do well the first year, forget about getting in selected majors."

Well, university officials are about to take Mr. Delaney's advice and much more.

The top academics are carrying out a plan, a systematic overhaul of the way things are done here, from what they tell students before they start to what happens to college deans when they don't deliver.

It will put a Big Brother-like computer on the trail of wayward freshmen -- they can get lost easily here -- and it will see the university president and other top brass in the classroom this fall teaching new students how to succeed in college.

First, some background:

College Park, with 26,000 undergraduates, is one of the 10 largest public campuses in the nation.

Its dropout rate is at the national average: better than most public colleges and universities in the state, but worse -- in some cases, far worse -- than the best public research universities in the country.

Much of what academics are now proposing is the result of several years of efforts to improve undergraduate education.

"What's new is we're seriously intensifying efforts to improve graduation rates," said J. Robert Dorfman, university vice president and chief academic officer.

In an interview last week, Dr. Dorfman, political science professor Donald C. Piper and chief university data collector Debra Stuart detailed their plan of attack.

It starts with mandatory advising of freshmen twice a year. It includes an "early warning" system for freshman -- because students need to know where they stand against university expectations soon enough to take remedial action.

Then, an "academic audit" of each student's progress -- the courses they are taking and the progress they are making -- designed to get sophomores into majors they can master before it's too late and they end up discouraged enough to drop out.

Also, College Park will urge -- but not require -- freshmen to enroll in a non-credit course called, "The Student in the University," described as a continuing discussion between faculty and students to get the latter accustomed to the ropes as well as the higher academic standards.

On many campuses, this type of course is the difference between success and failure. Of College Park freshmen who took the course in 1987, 97 percent were still in school five semesters later, compared with 71 percent for the students who didn't take it.

There are hardly enough seats in this class for 3,000-plus freshmen -- yet.

This fall, to underscore the importance College Park is placing on ensuring that students get their diplomas, President William E. Kirwan, Dr. Dorfman, the other university vice presidents and some of the deans will teach sections of the two-hour-a-week course, adding 10 new sections.

Eventually, Dr. Dorfman said that he hopes to train enough faculty to make seats available for the entire freshmen class.

Those are the basics.

In addition, the plan prepared by a committee chaired by Dr. Piper calls for each department chair, the dean of each college and the heads of such key offices as admissions and financial aid to develop strategies and goals of their own to reduce the dropout rates.

For instance, admissions might give prospective students more realistic information to help them judge whether College Park is right for them, and financial aid might find a way to help students whose money runs out before they graduate.

These efforts, as well as the success or failure of students and the reasons for it, will be analyzed, judged, published annually and used to develop new and better strategies. The job takes a new assistant vice president in the provost's office who starts Aug. 1.

Overall, the dropout rate for new full-time freshmen after five years at College Park is 50 percent. That compares with rates of 23 percent to 46 percent at the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan, North Carolina and six other public research universities College Park measures itself against.

For black students, the dropout rate is higher -- 70 percent, again higher than the other nine universities but slightly lower than the nationwide average.

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