CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has made significant gains in keeping freshmen in school, thanks to several programs aimed at orienting new students to the university and surrounding community.

From 1996 to 1998, the percentage of freshmen that have returned to OSU for their sophomore year has increased from 73.8 percent to 78.3 percent. Nationally, freshmen retention rates at four-year public research universities average about 72 percent.

"That first year is crucial," said Jackie Balzer, coordinator of OSU's first-year experience program. "If a student is going to drop out, it will most likely occur during their freshman year."

Balzer said making students feel a part of the university community is critical to keeping them in school. OSU has developed a series of programs designed for first-year students and the university's efforts seem to be paying off.

"We are doing much better than the national average," said Leslie Davis Burns, director of undergraduate academic programs at OSU. "However, our goal is to have an overall freshmen retention rate of better than 80 percent."

Odyssey, a class designed to help new students learn about OSU and feel part of the university community, has helped keep freshmen in school, Balzer said. Of the 1,047 freshmen enrolled in Odyssey in 1997, 80.7 percent returned to OSU for their sophomore year. Of the freshmen not enrolled in Odyssey, 76.9 percent returned.

"One argument for the differences between those students enrolled in Odyssey and those not enrolled is that students who enroll in Odyssey are more likely to be retained," Davis Burns said. "However, the demographic characteristics of these two groups of students are very similar."

Dwaine Plaza, an associate professor of sociology, volunteered to teach an Odyssey class this fall and said he can see why students enrolled in the classes succeed.

"They have a sense of belonging," he said. "Going off to college can be a difficult time for a young person. Some of the students said they had more people in their biology class than they had in their high school graduating class. That can be pretty intimidating."

Balzer said 85 staff and faculty volunteered to teach 66 Odyssey classes to 1,374 of the university's 2,200 freshmen this fall.

"It's making a difference to the students but it's also making a difference on campus," Balzer said. "The faculty and staff that volunteer with the program feel better about OSU. They seem to be having fun with it."

The Summer Orientation and Advising Program, which helps students learn more about their academic future prior to entering OSU, and Connect, a week of orientation activities that kicks off the new school year, work with Odyssey to produce confident students, Balzer said.

"It's important that we make students feel good about OSU in their first term here," Balzer said. "These programs really give students the tools to succeed while they're in college."

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Leslie Davis Burns, 541-737-0983