CORVALLIS - For the third consecutive year, the number of freshmen returning to Oregon State University for their sophomore year has increased.
The university reports that its freshman-to-sophomore retention rate has increased from 77.3 percent in 1997 to 83.4 percent in 1999. According to the American College Testing Program, the national freshmen retention rate at four-year doctoral granting universities averages about 76 percent.
Overall, 88.8 percent of all the students enrolled at OSU in the fall of 1998 either graduated or returned in the fall of 1999.
Freshmen retention rates are considered a key measurement in a university's success and organizations and publications like U.S. News & World Report use them when ranking universities.
"It is a source of pride throughout this campus that our retention rates are soaring," said OSU President Paul Risser. "The retention programs we have put in place are very important and have been successful, but we also have a whole army of faculty and staff across campus who work at it every day."
Leslie Davis Burns, director of undergraduate academic programs at OSU, agreed with Risser, saying it takes a campus-wide effort to realize this level of success.
"This is not the success of one office or one program," Burns said. "It's a campus-wide effort. Students feel good about being at OSU and they feel their degree is worth the time and effort."
Burns said Oregon State's successful retention efforts began after university leaders developed a report in 1996 that took a critical look at how OSU approached the task of keeping students in school.
"Most retention studies focus on why students leave a university," Burns said. "Universities spend a lot of time and money interviewing students who have left school. We took a different approach. We tried to understand why students stay in school."
The study was published and received national attention in the academic community. But more importantly, it served as a guide for OSU to develop a strategy to retain more students. "Students stay in school when they are well-prepared and when their transition to the university is smooth," Burns said. "They succeed in challenging academic programs when they make solid connections to the university and feel a part of the community. We focused our retention efforts on the first-year experience of our students."
Following the study, OSU developed a three-step program to better prepare students for the rigors of college. A summer academic advising and registration program was created along with OSU CONNECT, a new student orientation program that begins the week before classes start. Odyssey, a one-credit orientation course was introduced to help new students learn about university services. Staff, faculty and returning students volunteered to implement the university's retention plan.
"We've recognized that our retention success reaches far beyond those programs," said Jackie Balzer, coordinator of the university's first-year experience program. "It's all of the faculty or people in the colleges and departments on campus asking themselves what they can do to make sure the new students know how to be successful and use the services that are available to make them successful.
"As students transition to OSU," she added, "we've found that if you teach them how to become an active member in our community of scholars and where to go for help, they will succeed."
While OSU exceeds the national average in freshman retention, Burns estimates that the university spends only 75 percent of what peer institutions spend on similar programs.
"Our retention efforts are a good deal for Oregonians," she said. "Our campus volunteers help us hold the costs down. We couldn't do it without them."
Balzer said 98 staff and faculty members volunteered to teach more than 1,400 first-year students in 74 Odyssey class sections last fall. She said the number of Odyssey classes has more than doubled in the last three years.
"The volunteers are rewarded by what they learn about first-year students on our campus and the thank-you notes they receive," Balzer said. "It's a very low-cost way to help students feel like part of the OSU community and to teach them about the resources at the university."