By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Even though it sits in the academic shadow of nearby Yale University, plucky Southern Connecticut State University unveiled a second-to-none secret weapon at its new-student orientation this year - a lobster dinner and fireworks.
Both were part of a four-day orientation extravaganza unlike anything this urban school has ever seen. Serious seminars on academic survival, alcohol abuse, and date rape were followed by games, free frisbees, and truckloads of food.
As a sea of 1,200 freshmen and transfer students poured past him into a large tent for a meal, Rich Farricielli played traffic cop, walkie-talkie at the ready. "We want the kids to go home and say, 'You wouldn't believe it - not only did I learn something - we had lobster for dinner and fireworks,' " says the dean of student affairs.
Across the United States, colleges and universities are beefing up freshman orientations as never before to involve students in volunteer work, Outward Bound-style experiences, and even gourmet meals. The goal is to make a good first impression and create a bond between students and school from Day 1.
As recently as the early 1980s, orientation was still little more than academic counseling, registration, and showing students to dorms. But a decline in the number of traditional-age students - as well as the fact that more than one-quarter of freshmen at four-year schools do not return to the same institution - has wrought radical changes.
Students who become friends with each other during orientation or bond with a faculty member get better grades, get into less trouble, and tend to form an attachment to the school, studies show. And with colleges competing hotly for students and recruiting costs rising, getting a freshman to return for sophomore year is crucial to a school's financial stability.
Schools did not always go to such lengths to greet their incoming class. Certainly few would have guessed that faculty members at the University of Connecticut in Storrs would volunteer to be "husky haulers" this week - lugging student belongings up to their dorm rooms. The school's hope is that maybe a freshman will form a fledgling friendship with a history professor struggling up a flight of stairs with his steamer trunk.
"Orientation used to be kind of this one-day advising, registering, and sending them home," says Daniel Robb, president of the National Orientation Directors Association in Bloomington, Ind. "But I can't name one place that is still with a 'sink or swim' approach that says: "You're a grown adult - you should be able to deal with this."
More than 80 percent of colleges and universities reported that they were trying to improve freshman year, according to a 1995 national survey, the most recent available. About 70 percent report offering semester or year-long "freshman-seminar" courses on time management and other nonacademic issues.
Such numbers imply a growing focus on upgrading student orientation preceding school as well, Mr. Robb says. But the direction an orientation upgrade takes depends on the school's needs.
At the University of Connecticut, for example, the school is trying to scrub off a party-school reputation by emphasizing academics. It sent the novel "Amistad" to freshmen over the summer, and will have faculty-led discussions with students about the book during orientation this week. Freshmen will also arrive before upper classmen for the first time this year - partly so they will not have "their minds poisoned" toward studying, a spokesman says.
"What is important to us is making sure that they feel part of campus and as quickly as possible," says Mark Emmert, the university's chancellor. "They have to make the transition from passive high-school learning to active collegiate learning - and that's very difficult today."
Yet at many colleges, more-academic, "Great Books" programs are being dumped in favor of Outward Bound-style experiences for small groups of new students. …