The Washington Post

La Sierra boosts first-year retention rates with early orientation

It’s August, which means the typical university campus is starting to look like the early-morning rush at Starbucks – long lines of freshmen packed into lobbies, hallways, waiting in lines for course assignments and placement testing.

Here at La Sierra University, things look a little different. In 2007, we adopted a summer-long, early-orientation process in response to low retention rates for first-year students. Between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of first-year students who returned for their second year was between 59 and 65 percent.

We attended a conference focused on retention strategies and researched the First-Year Experience program, which is used at many schools, including Whittier College in California, Boston College and Ohio State University. After piloting the program, we decided to implement it on our campus.

Rather than an intense, week-long, all-inclusive orientation, the First-Year Experience curriculum gradually introduces students and their parents to La Sierra’s protocol and programs.

The mandatory program begins with two-day orientation sessions in July, August or September. Small groups of students and parents are welcomed into the community through meetings with financial aid counselors, key university administrators, workshops on academic programs and graduation requirements. Students learn about campus resources, take placement tests and register for classes.

These sessions are an introduction to a year-long support system designed to help freshmen adjust to an unfamiliar world in which they alone will be responsible for completing assignments, getting up on time, making wise choices and ultimately forging ahead into young adulthood and its inherent responsibilities.

 The long-term results have been highly encouraging. Since launching the program, our freshmen retention rates shot up each year to between 72 and 74 percent. Overall, La Sierra experienced a 22 percent increase in its retention rate of first-year students between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 school years.

The program is run out of the Center for Student Academic Success, which was also launched in 2007. The center is a first stop for students during orientation. There they meet with staff from admissions, financial aid and the Learning Support & Testing Center, eliminating the need to traipse all over campus in the heat looking for these departments. Next, students meet one-on-one with academic coaches who individualize the two-day experience based on the student’s needs.

 Throughout freshman year, First-Year Experience provides weekly academic coaching with full-time, college-educated coaches, seminars, writing and math assistance and workshops in time management, test-taking strategies and external scholarship acquisition.

As with any new program, there were a few bumps along the way. The biggest hurdle initially was getting all the involved campus departments to switch their thinking. Departments that were used to working independently needed to work together effectively to provide a seamless experience for the student. Although difficult at first, departments quickly saw how the new system ultimately was more successful and saved time in the long run.

 Now school leaders want to take this support program to the next level. First-Year Experience serves as the foundational model for a grant-funded effort aimed at sophomores this coming school year. The Sophomore Mentoring Program gets underway with the start of classes on Sept. 26.

If your campus is experiencing lukewarm freshman retention rates, like ours was, research the best solutions out there and get to work creating a program that shepherds these vulnerable young people through a pivotal transition in their development. It will be well worth the effort.

Has your campus experimented with earlier orientation? Does it work?


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