Paintball party has staying power

January 15, 1999

There are only about 1,500 students on the idyllic hilltop campus of Western Maryland University, and the atmosphere is so laid-back that a cat named Siouxsie has free reign of the leafy quadrangle and classrooms.

But despite the setting, more than a fifth of first-year students drop out.

To stop the trend, professors, who double as advisers, have been given money to take their first-year students to movies, dinners, concerts and other distractions.

Chemistry professor Brian Wladkowski used his $200 allotment for a paintball party. "It would be a shame to lose students who would otherwise succeed and excel at a place like this if you lose them for reasons related to their inability to make friends, to socialise or to participate," he said.

More than 930 US colleges and universities now offer special programmes to help first-year students adjust, according to the University of South Carolina National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience.

Nearly 70 per cent of schools offer extended orientation or college-survival seminars. Half require them. Nearly two-thirds are run not by faculty, but by professional counsellors.

Other schools, including Washington State University, have appointed "peer facilitators" to help students with personal problems, writing and research.

Replacing a first-year student is difficult and expensive. Students who elect not to return throw university and college budget planning into chaos.

At Western Maryland, about 20 miles northwest of Baltimore, the first-year students, also called freshmen, are not only shown a good time, but they are also paired with upperclassmen who help them adjust to the campus.

It seems to be working. The college's retention rate for new students has climbed from about 80 per cent to nearly 90 per cent in one year.

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