Roads scholars row for recruitment

November 29, 1996

A light breeze teases the college flags and scatters an early morning mist, exposing rowers practicing their strokes offshore.

A vision of Oxford in Kentucky? That is the objective of one public university in the United States which is trying to reduce its drop-out rate by converting to a residential college system.

Kern Alexander, president of Murray State University, said: "It's been obvious for some time that public universities in the US have grown quite large and there has been an impersonalisation.

"Students don't attach themselves to the universities and we don't have retention rates that we would like. Of all the various models of higher education we looked at as we tried to solve this problem, it occurred to us that probably the best was the oldest system, and that was the confederation of small colleges."

This autumn, Murray State divided students, faculty and staff into eight residential colleges, each with a flag, a crest, a constitution, a governing board, a softball team and, for the first time, a boat club.

The system is closest to elite US universities, such as Harvard and Yale, which assign their many students to residential "houses." But the comparison to Oxford and Cambridge has created what one of Kentucky's main newspapers called an "outburst of Anglophilia" at this rural campus, where most people speak with a soft southern drawl.

"Just to be mentioned in any kind of way with Oxford or Cambridge is extremely important to us," said Dr Alexander, who attended graduate school at Oxford and three of whose sons went to Oxford or Cambridge.

In truth, the rowers are still learning their technique and the buildings that punctuate the grassy campus are made of institutional cinderblock. But the experiment dividing Murray State's 8,600 students into smaller groups is an attempt to increase individual attention and instill pride.

"I know everybody in the dorm," said Kip Roberts, an 18-year-old student. "It promotes a close-knit feeling with the people in your hall. Before the residential college programme came into effect, you knew your room-mate and whoever lived across from you, and that was it. After being here and getting to know everybody, I'm definitely in for the long haul."

That is exactly what administrators want to hear. They hope first-year students will return for their second year, when about one-third now drop out - more than the national average. Only half stay long enough to graduate.

Don Robertson, vice president for student affairs, said: "Typically, when students leave a place, we find that it's because they didn't feel a part of it. They feel isolated, they don't feel involved, they don't feel that they really matter.

"We wanted to personalise our institution, and one way to do that was to break down our larger university into smaller units. It's easier to identify with a unit of 1,000 than it is with a unit of 8,000."

It seems to be working. Some 98 per cent of first-year students in a campus newspaper poll said they feel attached to the university.

There was initial opposition when residential colleges were first proposed and hearings were held. The problem? Some in this Bible Belt state objected to mixing male and female students in the dormitories. As a compromise, one of the dorms remained all-male and one all-female, then teamed up to create one co-educational residential college.

"Our culture is very different from Yale or Cambridge or Oxford, and we had to make some adjustments," Dr Robertson said.

All of the colleges compete in athletic events; the winners fly the loser's flag upside-down beneath their own flag in the first of several traditions the colleges hopes to establish.

One faculty member heads each college, each has an elected council and each designed a crest, wrote and ratified a constitution and plans fund-raisers, competitions and group activities. On nearby Lake Kentucky, more than 100 students have taken up competitive rowing.

The university has even beefed up recruiting by sending staff to high schools in a programme dubbed "Roads Scholars".

The idea of residential public universities is also being tested on a small scale at Michigan, Missouri and North Carolina and one of the campuses of New York University has residential colleges.

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