Guilford helps first-years find home away from home

Ruth deButts sat in her Binford Hall dorm room on a recent Wednesday evening with a decision to make: study at the library or hang out with her fellow floormates for a night of gossip and games.Turns out it was an easy call – deButts stayed home. No books, no research – just friends dishing over Dominos and Connect Four.

“School never came up once,” said deButts, a first-year from Lincoln, Va. “We had a good time just talking about ourselves, (our) lives, each other.”

Now here is the rub: School officials could not have been more delighted with deButts’ decision.

DeButts and her friends were taking advantage of a Guilford-sponsored game night, one of several activities for first-year students participating in the college’s Living and Learning Communities.

The communities – 130 students living side by side in various wings throughout Binford Hall -are Guilford’s latest effort to ease students into their first year of college.

“It’s a stressful time, to say the least,” said Clay Harshaw, coordinator of Guilford’s first-year program. “It’s not just academically, but socially that some students have a hard time adjusting to. We want to make that first year as smooth as possible.”

Guilford’s Living and Learning Communities surround first-year students with students who are taking the same FYE class.

When Lia Clark, a first-year hailing from Greensboro, did not feel like studying for her Poverty in America class recently, she got some prodding from her floormates, who like Clark, are taking the class and share rooms on the second floor of Binford.

“We’re like a support group for each other,” Clark said. “If I’m feeling lazy someone will tell me, ‘Do your work.’ Everyone looks after everyone.”

“I really like my hallmates,” said first-year Adam Faust, “but I sometimes feel like I am missing out on meeting other people since I am surrounded by the same group all the time.”

Guilford’s efforts are hardly unique. Universities and colleges across the country are struggling to prevent first-year students from dropping out after their first academic year.

The percentage of college freshmen who did not return to the same college for their second year has reached a record high, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Iowa-based American College Testing, a non-profit educational think- tank.

Forty-four percent of first-year college students failed to return to that same college as sophomores in the 2008-2009 academic year, according to the most recent available data. That is the highest dropout percentage since the organization began gathering data in 1983.

Universities and colleges have long chalked up rising drop-out rates as a fact of life or a testament to the school’s rigorous academics. But a sagging economy that has chipped away at schools’ financial coffers has forced many schools to take an even closer look at how to keep students and their tuition from heading home for good.

“True, schools don’t like being in the position of losing tuition,” Harshaw said. “But it’s more than that. I think a lot of schools are realizing that while they are doing a lot to help their students, there’s so much more they can be doing – should be doing.”

Harshaw said Guilford’s most recently recorded dropout rate was 20 percent in 2008 – an improvement from 32 percent in 2007. “That may be better than other schools, but we’re still not happy knowing we’re losing a significant number of students.”

“Everyone is away from their families for the first time, so we’re like our own family now,” said deButts. “It’s nice to have that close community to turn to.