Novel idea: Go to class

Novel idea: Go to class

October 6th, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Dillon Morgan, a freshman at UTC, sits with over 100 fellow students as they watch a video during Professor Lyn Miles' anthropology class in the Benwood Auditorium on UTC's campus Thursday.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Dillon Morgan, a freshman...

UTC freshmen used to be able to skip class without worrying about drawing attention from professors and school officials.

But new classroom attendance policies, meant to bolster UTC's poor freshman retention rate, are causing college students to think twice before playing hooky and failing out.

"Students and parents are getting the message loud and clear that attendance is correlate to student success," UTC Provost Phil Oldham said. "We are on the front end of a cultural change on campus."

UTC has been hemorrhaging first-year students for several years and, in 2008, had the lowest freshman retention rate of all UT system schools.

Last fall, only 60.8 percent of freshman returned to campus their sophomore year, while the University of Tennessee at Knoxville retained 83.6 percent of its freshman class and UT Martin kept 70.9 percent, documents show.

Desperate to hold onto new students, officials launched the Freshman Academic Success Tracking program in summer 2008, which allows instructors of freshman courses to track attendance and report students who have missed two or more classes.

Resident assistants living in the dorms are given a list of the no-shows and asked to confront the students with the hard truth: Students that don't attend classes in the first few months of their first two semesters tend to have a lower grade-point average and drop out.

Students also are called and e-mailed about their class attendance in an effort to the drive the message home, Dr. Oldham said.

"There is nothing punitive about this system," he said. "It is a mild intervention, a kind of a wake-up call for the students."

And officials say the university's push to get students to class is catching on.

UTC's freshman retention rate jumped 7 percent from last year, said Dr. Fran Bender, director of Freshman Academic Success Tracking. The school's six-year graduation rate increased from 39.6 percent in 2008 to 42.2 percent this fall.

"I think it is something concrete that we can do to get students' attention in a very timely way," said Dr. Bender, a former English professor who has worked at UTC for more than 30 years. "It has been very positive."

While freshmen at UTC say the tracking system can make them feel like they are back in high school with mom and dad looking over their shoulder, the reminders can serve as a warning to the wayward.

"It is annoying, but I think it helps with the retention rate," said Jareny King, a freshman at UTC studying pre-law and business administration. "It can make students feel like there are people that care about me, so I better go to class!"

Still, some faculty and staff have been critical of the new tracking program, saying it is not necessarily the responsibility of professors and housing employees to monitor student behavior, officials said.

Right now, participation in the program is voluntary, and Dr. Pedro Campa, UTC faculty senate president, said many professors have chosen not to be involved. The initiative was never proposed to or approved by the Faculty Senate, he said.

"None of us came to the university to be a policeman for junior high students," Mr. Campa said. "A lot of our freshman classes are very large and it will turn into a real nightmare of accounting to see who is there and who isn't. A lot of people have bucked at the idea."

Resident assistants and housing employees originally objected when they were told they would have to have face-to-face meetings with students on their halls who were skipping class, said Ryan Hall, area coordinator for UTC Housing and Residential Life.

Last year, resident assistants had conversations with 67 percent of students who triggered an alarm through the tracking system, and this year the contact rate is closer to 85 percent, he said.

"There was resistance when it began, but this year the staff knew it was an expectation," he said. "They have a better attitude with it, and the numbers are bearing that out."