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Improving freshman retention rate

Washington: Turns out, students can develop a sense of fitting in before they even walk into class.

Incoming college students who already feel a connection to their institution are more likely to fit in and want to remain at the school, especially if they are ethnic minorities, according to a Michigan State University study.

The findings suggest colleges and universities should focus on fostering these student connections through summer transition programs and other targeted efforts for soon-to-be freshmen.

The retention rate for first-year students in the United States is about 68 percent, meaning more than 3 of 10 do not return their sophomore year, according to a report by ACT. At MSU, about 90 percent of freshmen return their second year.

“We found that students can develop a sense of fitting in before they even walk into class and that feeling is important down the line. It leads to the students feeling like their skills meet academic demands and also leads to them wanting to stick around,” said lead author Joshua Prasad.

“For universities that are looking to foster a diverse student body,” Prasad added, “this is an avenue they can actually act on. They can use that summer before students first come to campus to help develop that sense of fitting in.”

Prasad and his fellow MSU researchers surveyed 1,935 students attending orientation at MSU. According to the study, those who had felt a connection during orientation were much more likely to believe they were fitting in and interested in remaining at the university. Prasad called this a surprisingly strong finding.

Ethnic minority students were less likely to feel a connection to the university during orientation. The study notes that the concept of cultural mistrust has been used to describe how an oppressive past has shaped the attitudes of many African-Americans, creating a sense of skepticism toward predominately white universities and other institutions.

Ethnic minorities who did feel a connection during orientation, however, had a stronger link to feelings of fitting in and wanting to remain at the university after one semester.

The study also measured students’ determination and grit or the ability to persevere in the face of setbacks. Students who were high in these measures during orientation were more likely to perform well academically in their first semester, regardless of their high school grades and SAT scores.

“The practical implication here,” said Prasad, “is that universities that rely solely on the standard metrics of academic success for new students, such as grade point average and entrance exam scores, might be missing out on the very important individual factors of motivation and determination.”

The study is published online in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. (ANI)