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Campus News
     
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue:  June 3, 2002
Volume 37, Number 21

Campus News will publish a series of articles this summer about recent changes at UNM made to boost retention and create a "freshman experience," a holistic approach to assist students’ entry into college life. Numbers show that the programs work. UNM’s 88.2 retention rate this past spring is the highest midyear number since the University started tracking freshman performance. The first semester grade-point average for freshmen rose from 2.57 in 1997 to 2.84 in 2001.

This fall, University College will enroll perhaps its largest class ever -- 2,800 students, more than half of whom will be in a program aimed at improving their chances for success.

Learning communities help retain, engage freshmen

By Steve Carr

Desired outcomes spell success: Self-awareness, understanding, community competency, engagement, subject-related outcomes and skills. Combined, these components are at the core of the freshman learning communities at UNM.

Designed to provide a special learning atmosphere for incoming freshmen, the communities are comprised of 22 students who enroll together in two or more classes taught by tenured faculty. One course is a seminar with a theme such as “Privacy in a Technological World” or “Working with Children, Youth and Families.” Each seminar is linked to a course in Freshman English or Public Speaking. Faculty coordinates the coursework.

“Three and a half years ago President Gordon decided that one of his highest priorities was to improve undergraduate education at UNM. He told the Board of Regents that he wanted to increase our retention and graduation rates,” said Peter White, dean of University College.

“I spoke to a lot of experts in higher education like Vincent Tinto from Syracuse University who is well known for his book on student retention. With the advice of numerous people, I came to President Gordon with the idea of freshman learning communities.

“President Gordon basically said ‘go for it.’ The first year we had four freshman learning communities. Last year we had 17 and this year we are going to have 20,” White said.

In addition to the learning communities, three other specially developed programs for freshmen are designed to offer extra learning and support: Freshman interest groups, living and learning communities and the summer academy of excellence.

“Simultaneous with the freshman learning communities, I’ve been working with the other deans, especially Arts & Sciences Dean Reed Dasenbrock, to improve the way we teach our lower level classes,” White said. “After doing a year’s worth of research and analyzing why students are leaving UNM, we discovered that they’re leaving not because they don’t like UNM, but because they are failing some classes.”

“They are failing the classes because of a lack of preparation, classes are too big and impersonal, the teachers are often graduate students or part-time teachers and the students don’t have that introduction to college that many other universities provide. That introduction is called a ‘freshman experience’,” he added.

The program’s success partially accounts for an 88.2 percent retention rate this past spring, the highest midyear retention rate since the University started keeping records of freshman performance. Maybe more significant is the fact that this January, when the Lottery Success Scholarships were awarded to first-year students, 70 percent of the 2,023 eligible students earned lottery scholarships by achieving a 2.5 grade-point average in 12 or more completed hours in the first semester, which is up from 53 percent just four years ago and seven percent from the previous fall. Additionally, the first semester grade-point average for freshmen has risen from 2.57 in 1997 to 2.84 in 2001, White says.

“Our primary commitment is to our students and their success,” President Gordon said. “To that end, we have created a freshman experience that will enable students to be successful in their academic career. Freshman learning communities foster a strong and supportive foundation on which first-year students can build their higher education experiences at UNM.”

The success of the program is dependent on a number of factors ranging from upper level administration, faculty involvement, as well as coordinated efforts between the Development Office at UNM and the business community, which contributes to the President’s Fund for Academic Excellence through the President’s Club.

The club is a group of individuals intent on making a difference at UNM through their financial gifts.

Doug Brown“The President’s Club grew out of a meeting between a group of business leaders, President Gordon and his key staff members,” said Doug Brown, club chairman and president and chief executive officer of the Tuition Plan. “It became apparent that there is very little general discretionary money for the president to spend. In Santa Fe they’ll allocate certain amounts of monies for certain purposes, but as far as starting up a new initiative of some kind, it is very limited.

“The business community here recognizes that UNM is... an important economic influence vital to the health of the business community. We wanted to do what he could do to build more affinity, particularly within the freshman class,” Brown said.
The gifts support the President’s Fund for Academic Excellence and are dedicated to unrestricted presidential initiatives/programs that may not receive traditional funding.

“Unrestricted funds allow us to try things, to be innovative, to go a step beyond the traditional modes of education,” Gordon said.

“There is tremendous potential for the business community to realize significant returns on investments they make in these programs. Programs – such as the freshman learning communities – cultivate successful students who upon graduation from UNM are productive citizens and leaders in our communities.”

Not only is community involvement vital to the support of the program, but so is the buy-in from the participants – including the professors who teach the courses. Kristin Umland, who has taught math for six years at UNM, will begin her first semester with the FLC next fall and jumped at the opportunity to become a part of the program.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” Umland said. “I think anytime you link ideas across disciplines it’s a good idea. It’s good for the instructors to think about their field in relation to another field and to get out there and see what other faculty members are doing. The value in that alone is very high. Of course I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t great for students.

“I believe in the freshman learning communities and all the instructors I have talked to really believe in it and that helps with the success of the program if the faculty involved are committed to it and think that it’s a great thing.”

Professors aren’t the only individuals involved with the education process.

Mark Emmons, who is the assistant director of Education Programs and Services at the UNM General Library, is one of 17 librarians who will be involved in 20 different classes next fall.

“The freshman learning communities promote success among freshmen by giving them experience they wouldn’t normally see until they were an upperclassman,” Emmons said. “Freshman students need to know how to find, evaluate and use information. Since it meshed so well with the freshman learning communities, we offered our services. The library component is valued by both faculty and students.”