It turns out that a key factor in students finishing college is their experience during the very start of college, from the moment they send their deposit through freshman orientation.
Institutions find that switching the focus of orientation to fostering campus connections boosts student engagement, and research links student connectedness to retention.
So at many institutions, this work begins long before move-in day, and it continues during orientation and throughout freshman year.
Nationwide, about 40 percent of students who started college in fall 2015 had left by the following year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Orientation itself has been linked to college enjoyment and higher grades. In a 2016 survey by Oohlala Mobile (now Ready Education), students who had a positive orientation experience were 17 percent more likely to report a positive overall student life experience.
Those who didn’t like orientation were 71 percent more likely to report a grade of C or lower.
“Any one-day experience can only do so much to move a needle—it can be a good start,” says Kevin Hartshorn, dean of student success at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. “You’re only going to have long-term impact if you follow through.”
And even then, with student success, “there’s no silver bullet,” he adds. “It takes a long and dedicated process. It starts at admissions and [continues with orientation] and regular touchpoints throughout the semester.”
Here’s how five colleges and universities with innovative orientation approaches are striving to make an impact on engagement and persistence.
Hamilton College, Clinton, New York
Approach: Incoming students who took previously optional, preorientation Adirondack trips had higher engagement and satisfaction rates.
So the college made the trips free and wove the getaways into an extended, nine-day orientation. Students choose an Exploration, Adventure or Outreach trip—and leave their phones behind.
Method: Orientation begins with a traditional welcome day on campus. Students also meet their travel group peers. Each group includes about eight freshmen and two student leaders.
Students may choose from 70 topics that include activities designed to enable conversation and forge connections, with some trips involving camping and others with indoor accommodations.
Results: After implementing universal trips in 2016, student satisfaction rates jumped by 33 percentage points, with nearly half saying they were satisfied with orientation in 2015, and 82 percent expressing satisfaction in 2016 and 2017.
Throughout the year, travel groups continue to meet for meals.
Administrator insight: “Having an activity—working on an art project or hiking—allows conversations to happen more organically. With the trip experience, you’re with a small group of people. You’re cooking meals together. There are no cell phones. Connections are easier to form and a little harder to totally remove yourself from.” —Tessa Chefalo, director of orientation and first-year programs
Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Approach: Shifting orientation from June to August in 2016 made it easier for international and out-of-state students to attend.
The First Generation Task Force of faculty, staff and students engages virtually with new students all summer via live chats, webcasts and a newsletter to prevent summer melt.
Method: From home, students review (and get assessed on) seven modules through an online system, which was designed by Advantage Design Group.
For additional information on any topic—such as study abroad, service learning or student organizations—students can click on a link during virtual office hours to inquire about them and register for courses.
On-campus orientation serves as a deep dive into the institution’s four core values, with small, peer-led group activities designed to nudge students out of their comfort zones. All students write out three things they’re grateful for and one thing that makes them anxious.
Student leaders share personal stories about when they felt disconnected and how they made it through struggles and failures.
Results: The five-year, 94 percent retention rate at the business-focused university has remained steady. Students who initially balked at the touchy-feely exercises have contributed to the conversation in peer-led groups.
After this year’s August orientation, 76 percent of students reported making close connections, and 87 percent reported feeling included in the community. Participation in a senior class trip to the Bahamas is up by almost 10 percent since the changes were made to orientation.
Administrator insight: “We normalize that you’re going to have failure. We want students to have grit and resilience. We say, ‘Take off your cool hat. We want you to be fully invested in what these next days will look like. It’s OK to be silly and step out of your comfort zone.’ ” —Bobbi-Lynn Kekic, associate director of new student programs and development
Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Approach: About 35 incoming freshmen out of a class of about 475 participate in week-long, preorientation service projects through The 1742 Experience program. Leaders select participants based on volunteer experience and motivation.
Method: The college partners with community organizations that are in need of volunteers, and students work in small groups or as a whole group in a variety of locations.
The groups vary by day, and students are assigned randomly so they can try new experiences and get to know as many classmates as possible. Students pay $200 each to cover housing, meals, local transportation and evening activities; financial aid is available.
Throughout freshman year, 1742 students continue to meet, completing bimonthly service projects together.
Results: The college retention rate for these students is 98 percent. In the past four years, only two out of 120 participants did not return for sophomore year.
Administrator insight: “Service has been proven to be a high-impact opportunity. Students are more apt to see the benefit of their overall education. Service opportunities give you friends and a safe space. … One of the best retention efforts involves connecting with children—America Reads, Boys & Girls Clubs, mentoring. They feel needed with children in the community, and they’re more likely to stay.” —Gillian Sharkey, director of civic engagement, Center for Career and Civic Engagement
Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah
Approach: The university replaced the traditional campus orientation with an online orientation.
Previously, students who left the university reported a host of reasons for withdrawing—from finances and stress to roommates and employment. That research prompted student affairs leaders to torch the onboarding system and start from scratch.
From the time each student pays an enrollment deposit until they step onto campus in August, there are 38 points of contact.
Method: New students complete an intake questionnaire; are guided, one-on-one, through registration; meet a peer coach via postcard; can ask questions through an online forum; and are asked to schedule a personalized visit.
During a separate online orientation, students read about academic support, employment, financial aid and other standard orientation topics. They select the specific departments they’d like to meet with on a personalized visit day, which the peer coaches help plan by arranging appointments with relevant staff members.
Just before classes begin, groups of 10 to 15 students with similar interests—from Harry Potter to international travel—meet for various activities.
Results: By the time classes start, surveys show, not a single student is lacking a friend or someone they can turn to for help.
Under the old orientation model, only 60 percent felt they’d made a connection. Retention rates from freshman to sophomore year jumped from 64 percent in 2014 to 71 percent in 2016.
Administrator insight: “Generation Z wants a program structured around their needs. We start with what’s best for the student and the university. Hand registering every incoming student is not best for the advisor. We’re trying to save students time, which saves them money.” —Eric M. Kirby, assistant vice president for student affairs
UMass Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts
Approach: While the entire orientation experience has not been revamped, in 2017, information technology administrators powered up their orientation session—replacing a 30-minute PowerPoint with Game On!, a fast-paced, Q&A-style trivia game.
Method: After a 30-second intro video, students can enter a drawing to win a tablet if they come on stage to answer a multiple-choice, IT-related question, such as: “What is the campus’ Wi-Fi network called?” or “What’s a legal means of watching movies on your computer?”
Students ask questions of their classmates during the inverse lightning round. Everyone who asks a question gets a T-shirt with the IT department’s logo, website and contact information.
Results: Out of the 4,300 new students who participated in orientation in 2017, 74 percent attended the IT interactive presentation. In 2018—with transfer students included in the data—83 percent of the 5,300 orientation attendees played the game.
The format has helped the bottom line, too: IT used to spend $3,500 to $5,000 on novelty giveaways at orientation to attract students to the booth, but the department is now spending a fraction of that on T-shirts and a tablet.
Administrator insight: “We try to make the questions and answers self-explanatory. I had student staff members working for me who couldn’t even remember their IT presentation. Now, they remember who we are. When they know about us, instead of getting frustrated or giving up on an activity, they know they can reach us over the phone or come see us in person.” —Matthew Harrington, assistant director of user services, information technology
Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based writer.