A grade of C+. It’s enough to shake up a first-year student and spell the end of university career, say some school officials. As mid-term marks begin to pour in for university freshmen over the next few weeks, Ontario schools say they’re on hand to help curb dropout rates across the province.
“We’re dealing with students who are overachievers in high school. They often have never had anything worse then an A,” said Deanne Fisher, director of student life for the St. George campus at the University of Toronto. “So, when they come to U of T and find they might have got a C +, or worse, on their first mid-term that can have quite an emotional impact on them,” Fisher added.
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While most students continue with their studies after first year — retention rates are steadily improving for many universities– there are still a small number of students deciding to pack it all in. The reasons are varied, from a crisis at home, to poor marks, financial struggles to a program that just doesn’t deliver.
Adam Miceli, 24 — an affable, bright young man — laughs sheepishly as he describes the years he spent meandering through different schools, unsure about his programs, uncertain about his future. Miceli, now a music student at the University of Toronto, began at York University in biology five years ago. By the time second semester had rolled around, he knew he was ready to leave the school. “I was coming right out of high school. I was thrown into things,” said Miceli, who said he had been overwhelmed by classes the size of stadiums.
Miceli was under pressure to succeed after receiving a scholarship. “I was pushed into the university because of that and plus, my parents were looking at me to perform.”
According to the Canadian Federation of Students there is a patchwork of information regarding retention rates across the county, but nothing on a national scope.
At most universities in Ontario, the retention rates are high. For example, at Ryerson University in Toronto, 89 per cent of the students from first year continued on to their second year in 2008. At the St. George campus at U of T, the retention rate for students coming back to school in 2008 was 90.3 per cent, at McMaster University in Hamilton it was 86.2 and at the University of Windsor it was 80.1 per cent.
But there are those who slip through the cracks. “We do know from our surveys that the primary barrier to success for our first-year students is not financial, it’s their own academic performance,” said Fisher. “You can feel you’re in over your head and it’s a palpable feeling for them, ‘wow, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,’ ” said Fisher, as she described some of the feedback she’s heard from students.
Clayton Smith, vice-provost for students at the University of Windsor, said often students lose their way because they fail to “academically connect to their major.”
“This is a very different place than high school. They should commit to doing well. It sounds like daddy kind of talk, but the reality is just making the decision, ‘I’m going to do well,’ ” said Smith.
But not every first-year student is the same, and retention rates can vary, he added. “An aboriginal student who is away from home is in a different culture now, if they haven’t found a way to keep their values alive and be well supported, they often will go home and not finish university,” said Smith.
Smith also pointed out that if a school doesn’t make accommodations, such as providing a Muslim prayer room on campus, it could risk alienating a student.
Universities have taken aggressive steps to keep retention rates high. At Ryerson University, transition activities on campus help to integrate new students into the community by offering information on time management, writing and research. U of T addressed a problem with retaining its first-year engineering students a few years ago by creating an office solely dedicated to new students in the faculty.
It has also launched a pilot program for its life science students by offering organized study groups for students in large classes. Fisher said while university can be daunting for many, students need to reach out for help or else they will get lost in the shuffle. “We are tough and we expect a lot but we have to match that with the amount of support,” she said.
The Canadian Press