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YSU Staying power: Giving freshmen a hand



Published: Tue, September 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



YSU is starting new efforts to retain academically vulnerable first-year students.

By RON COLE

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- You're 18 years old and just out of high school, and despite some less-than-stellar grades, have been accepted to college.

Your class schedule reads like a gothic horror story: physics, American literature, philosophy, chemistry and world history.

Ouch!

You move away from home, start classes, get inundated with textbooks and reading, try to adjust to your new roommate, fall behind in classes, fail a couple of tests, try to catch up, get frustrated, get homesick, wonder if you're cut out for college after all, fail a couple of midterm exams, fall further behind and get more frustrated.

When the semester ends, you've had it. You pack up, leave your dormitory and go home -- for good.

It's not an uncommon scenario for many first-time college students.

"The first semester makes all of the difference in the world in terms of a student's success in college," said Dr. Cindy Anderson, vice president for student affairs at Youngstown State University.

"If you can show the students a series of successes during their first semester or first year -- giving the student confidence, hope, a feeling that they can succeed -- then that student has a pretty good shot of at least being able to continue on."

As part of its efforts to increase enrollment, YSU opened fall semester classes last week with a renewed emphasis on the most academically vulnerable students on campus: freshmen.

Additional classes: In an attempt to reach at-risk freshmen as early as possible, YSU has increased the number of remedial or developmental class sections from 79 to 111.

The university also is starting a new pilot program, Gaining Opportunity to Achieve Learning Success, that homes in on the crucial first-year academic needs of a small group of freshmen.

YSU officials hope the changes will help get freshmen through their first year and returning for their second, improving the university's student retention rate and ultimately increasing enrollment.

Jonelle Beatrice, director of YSU's Center for Student Progress, said YSU President David Sweet has made remedial/developmental education a priority.

"It's refreshing," she said. "Others would like to just sweep it away."

Admissions: As an open-admissions school, YSU is required to accept any Ohio resident with a high school diploma or General Educational Development diploma equivalent.

But that doesn't mean all students are prepared for the rigors of college work.

Incoming students must take a battery of placement tests and may be put into developmental classes in math, English or reading/study skills based on those results. The classes prepare students for college-level coursework.

Nearly 40 percent of YSU freshmen under the age of 20 were enrolled in such remedial classes last academic year, according to a report being prepared by the Ohio Board of Regents.

The average among Ohio's public universities, including schools with selective admission requirements, was 23 percent, the report shows.

Beatrice said 646 students entered YSU as freshmen in fall 1999 with ACT scores below 18, well under the national average of 21. The ACT is a national standardized test.

Of those students, 321 -- nearly half -- did not re-enroll in fall 2000, and 266, or 41 percent, had grade averages so low that they were on academic warning or suspension.

Those are the students YSU must target, Anderson and Beatrice said.

Anderson said YSU must make sure students are placed in the proper developmental courses and get the extra help to succeed, rather than drop out.

"If you fail at something, you're less motivated to continue on that path," she said. "So, we're trying to front-load some success for these students."

Impact: When students get the help, it seems to work. Seventy-four percent of YSU freshmen taking remedial English courses and 67 percent taking remedial math courses go on to pass regular college-level English and math courses, state records show. That's above the state average of 70 percent in English and 61 percent in math.

Beatrice said GOALS hopes to make those numbers even better. The program creates what Beatrice calls a "learning community" of 45 at-risk freshmen.

Students attend a block of developmental and regular classes together for the first semester and participate in a variety of tutoring and intervention activities to put them on a solid academic path and help with the transition to college.

"There's a culture shock for a lot of students," Beatrice said. "A lot of them are first-generation college students. A lot of them are first-generation high school graduates."

In the end, the efforts should help retain students and boost enrollment, YSU officials said. The university's enrollment has dropped in 10 of the last 11 years, although YSU announced last week that preliminary enrollment counts are up this year.

University officials say YSU already does a good job of retaining students from the freshmen to sophomore years.

YSU posted a 67 percent retention rate last year, above the 65-percent state average and 54-percent national average, state records show.

"We retain students well here, but we can do better, especially that freshman year," Anderson said. "That's the critical point."




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