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AROUND THE OVAL
About the Montanan
by Terry Brenner
Students at a major U.S. university were asked in a recent survey what adjective they would use to describes themselves. "Tired" was their most common choice. This isn't surprising since today's college students grew up during the technological revolution, which brought massive, fast-paced changes not only in communication but also in social, political and economic structures at home and abroad. Furthermore, the price of a college education has risen to the point that students are under pressure to take enough credits to graduate in the least time possible. Most must work, and many must balance education and family responsibilities.
Nationwide, college administrators and others who deal with students are turning to surveys and other forms of research to help them understand their students and better provide for their needs. For the past three years, Gary Ratcliff, University Center director, has studied students for UM's Division of Student Affairs. He administered a national survey to UM freshmen that examines more than one hundred attributes, including financial resources, reasons for going to college, reasons for attending UM, interest in learning, lifestyle, openness to diversity, and political and religious orientation. The results compare UM freshmen with their peers nationwide. Ratcliff also has examined the results to compare UM in-state freshmen with those from out of state.
Black and white reproduction of acrylic on paper painting, "Glacier Day," by Somer Hileman, senior BFA candidate
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Yet, despite financial hardships and prospects of indebtedness, a greater percentage of UM freshmen care about becoming cultured people and care less about earning big salaries after graduation than their counterparts at other universities. "Like students around the country, our students want to get a good job, but making a lot of money after college is not as essential," Ratcliff says. "This is true for our in-state students and especially our out-of-state students."
Goals & Values
Goals and aspirations reflect another difference between UM freshmen and those at other public universities. Fewer UM freshmen rated as very important rising to the top of their field or their workplace or being successful in a business of their own. But a greater percentage rated as very important influencing social values, writing original works and being involved in programs to clean up the environment.
UM's good academic reputation is the top reason freshmen come to UM. Ranking second and third are availability of financial assistance and low tuition. Unfortunately, at UM that financial assistance comes mostly in the form of loans, says Mick Hanson, director of Financial Aid. UM students graduate with about $15,000 of debt compared to $11,000 nationwide, he says.
Mind & Matter
"Many students come to campus beset by worries, sadnesses and illnesses that predate their time on campus," says Ken Welt, director of UM's Counseling and Psychological Services. "The majority of our clients present with variations of depression and anxiety. But also common are eating disorders, grief, substance abuse/dependency and the correlates of past traumas." Welt says he and his staff also see the usual problems of traditional age studentshomesickness, conflicts with roommates and romantic partners, academic concerns and career uncertainty.
Each year he and his staff provide personal counseling to about a thousand UM students, each averaging four to five visits.
Nationwide, students' main outlet for fun is drinking. One study found that forty-four percent of college students who drink have binged within the past two weeks. The UM study did not survey binge drinking, but it found that freshmen women at UM drink alcoholic beverages more often than their counterparts at other public universities. Men students mirrored the drinking habits of their counterparts: Fifty-five percent drink alcoholic beverages frequently.
Culture & Creativity
For example, the data show that students who come from low-income households and are the first in their family to pursue a college degree are particularly at risk of dropping out. UM's Educational Opportunity Program has special programs to help first-generation college students make a successful transition to college.
Time spent exercising doesn't appear to have a negative effect on grades, Ratcliff says. But partying and drinking alcoholic beverages do. "Hours spent partying and frequency of drinking are two of the strongest predictors of poor performance and attrition," he says. "Both are correlated with the frequency of oversleeping and missing classes and appointments." Counseling and Psychological Services offers a broad menu of therapy groups for students with alcohol-abuse and other problems.
Not surprisingly, time spent studying correlates positively with academic performance, but it takes freshmen at UM and elsewhere a while to understand "they will have to invest more time and work harder to get the same level of grades they got in high school," Ratcliff says. "College can be overwhelming, and students should feel some level of stress. But we found that students who report feeling overwhelmed usually receive better grades. It is probably because they are more serious about their studies.
"Of course, too much stress is just as bad as too little. We advise students to try to find a healthy balance in their lives." He says students who get better grades tend to be those who break away from the books and get involved in student organizations, volunteering, tutoring, meeting students from diverse backgrounds and other activities that complement their education.
Ratcliff holds a doctorate in higher education from Penn State University and formerly worked with some of the nation's leading researchers on students. He says typical freshmen experience a great deal of independence, probably for the first time. Some don't know how to manage their time or study effectively. Some get caught up with the wrong crowd and spend their time on activities that undermine their education. Student surveys help UM administrators pinpoint a range of issues that need attention.
"In learning about our students," Ratcliff says, "our goals are to tailor services to meet their needs, develop programs so students will stay in college, and most important, provide the educational experiences they need to be productive and responsible citizens."
Terry Brenner is a news editor for UM's University Relations.
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