CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University will revise its First Year Experience program for new students over the next several years in an effort to help students succeed academically and improve retention.

A task force of OSU faculty, staff and students has been working on ways to help students thrive academically and personally during the first year. It concurs with what many national studies have found: The best way to ensure that students return for their sophomore year is to help them "connect" to campus in a meaningful way, said Susie Brubaker-Cole, associate provost for academic success at OSU and co-chair of the task force.

"What we're seeking is a 'high-touch' experience for students during that first year when it becomes critical for them to interact in meaningful ways with other students, with faculty and with campus programs," Brubaker-Cole said. "A lot of this happens in the classroom, but much of it is an extension of classroom learning that reaches into life on campus and the experiences you have as a member of campus communities."

As an integral part of OSU's initiative, first-year students will be required to live on campus for their first academic year beginning fall term of 2013.

"If you look at top universities in the country in terms of academic success and student retention, almost all of them require students to live on campus their first year," Brubaker-Cole said. "The learning and community-building that occur in campus residences are focal points of the first-year experience."

Tom Scheuermann, director of University Housing and Dining Services at OSU, says his office has assessed its overall on-campus housing capacity and will have adequate space for the live-on-campus requirement. In addition to the International Living-Learning Center that opened last year and houses 320 students, OSU's on-campus capacity will get a boost from a new residence hall that is in design with a planned opening of fall 2014.

Scheuermann said on-campus capacity this fall (2012) should be about 4,300 spaces, which will grow by another 300 in 2014 with the new hall. And some floors in Finley Hall that will be off-line in the coming academic year, or used for office space, will reopen in fall of 2013.

In recent years, about 80 percent of the new-to-OSU freshmen have lived on campus.

There will be some exceptions granted to the new requirement, OSU officials say, though specifics have yet to be determined.

Brubaker-Cole and her colleagues are focused on the importance of boosting OSU's First Year Experience efforts to broaden student success and deepen student learning. OSU's retention rate for freshman-to-sophomore year is 81.4 percent, which "is actually good when compared overall nationally," she said, "but it hasn't improved over the past few years in ways that fulfill our aspirations."

"We want more of our students to flourish here, earn their degrees, and benefit from the career paths that a college education brings," Brubaker-Cole said.

OSU's retention rate is comparable to its institutional peers, according to Brubaker-Cole, but not as good as some of its aspirational peers.

"It is important to actively build programs and support services that foster broad student success, and we know that the stakes are high for our students, their families and Oregon communities," she said. "An Oregon state employment projection showed that by 2016, nearly 74 percent of high-wage job openings in Oregon will require a bachelor's degree. We also know that college degree-holders are more active in civic life and are more likely to vote."

Mark Hoffman, co-chair of the task force and associate dean of OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said the university is also working on ways to better connect students to campus resources, including the library, academic advisers, faculty mentors, Counseling and Psychological Services, and other resources.

"There are summer bridge programs to help students get their feet wet before they become full-time students," Hoffman said, "and then we have U-Engage classes for first year students to help them learn how to navigate on campus and connect to all of the things it offers. Our next step is to evaluate all of the orientation programs and see what is working and how we can better coordinate the university's efforts."

Brubaker-Cole said students typically drop out for a variety of reasons, including homesickness, academic difficulties, finances, and psychological pressures. Friendships, mentoring relations with faculty members, connecting to programs that motivate and inspire, and campus support services can help offset the pressures that compel some students to not return after their first year.

"Retention is an issue that almost all universities around the country face," Brubaker-Cole said, "and fostering a deep sense of belonging for all students in the university community is the critical foundation for college success."

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Susie Brubaker-Cole, 541-737-6164