They come to class with full backpacks and blank, Tuesday-morning faces that tell you all you need to know about being a college freshman halfway through the fall semester.
Midterm grades have been delivered, the newness of college has rubbed off and a realization is dawning that this promise of the best four years of your life may, in fact, have been a tad overstated. Left out of the description were the parts about loneliness, crushing doubt and hard, hard work.
So on this cold, rainy sleep-in day, the Creighton kids trudge into Room 211-C.
Waiting for them are homemade chocolate chip cookies, a charismatic adviser and 50 minutes of light discussion about their trip to a haunted jail. They also are served a slideshow on the best places on campus to study (Java Jay for background noise; Law Library for comfy chairs).
Welcome to Ratio Studiorum. It may sound like a Harry Potter spell, but it is a graded, one-credit, mandatory course for Creighton freshmen.
It is also part of a hands-on advising approach Creighton and other higher-ed institutions have been adopting to make sure freshmen stick with school — and are successful.
This is measured in retention: the portion of freshmen students who return next year as sophomores. Retention figures are marketed along with pretty campuses, good sports teams and flashy buildings as part of the college package.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 84 percent of last year's freshmen came back for a second year, freshmen have “success coaches” and a sleek digital advising program.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha, with a freshman retention rate of 73 percent, created learning communities, opened a new academic and career development center, and targeted attention to students who haven't picked a major.
At Creighton, nine out of 10 freshmen last year returned — a high retention rate for major four-year Nebraska institutions and one of the highest in Creighton's peer group nationally. Creighton offers a slate of tutoring, counseling, learning communities for specific professional schools and the Ratio Studiorum classes.
Ratio Studiorum (which I want to say three times quickly, waving a magic wand) is Latin for “plan of studies.”
The freshman class is randomly divided into smaller groups of 12 to 15. Each group is assigned a professor who teaches everything from study skills and Jesuit identity to a book of the professor's choosing. Social activities outside of class are arranged. The professor serves as each student's academic adviser and, in a twist this year, is calling parents to check in.
Creighton also taps older peers to help. Each class is assigned a sophomore (called a “beadle”) who arranges social events and a senior (called a “decurion”) who helps teach.
Inside Room 211-C in Creighton's beautiful Lied Education Center for the Arts, students in this Ratio Studiorum section were from seven states, including Hawaii. Some had premed and other professional school majors. Two were studying theology. One student was undecided.
The freshmen laughed (and cringed) about a recent late-night field trip to the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, where a medium introduced them to some of the resident ghosts, which scared even the science-major skeptics.
“Our beds started shaking,” said Kassidy Kingsley, a freshman exercise science major from Oklahoma City. “My backpack was over here. I could hear the zipper going up.”
Instructor Stephen Sheftz, who is on the music faculty at Creighton, told the students the experience was creepy, one they would likely remember — but not to worry. He'd talked to a priest who said that St. Ignatius “would not put a lot of faith into it.”
“Ignatius,” Sheftz said, “was into the here-and-now.”
The point of the class is to foster espirit de corps, provide a safety net and also teach the true purpose of a college education. Required reading includes a 26-page paper by Creighton biology professor Theodore Burk called “Liberal Education at Creighton.”
Going to college isn't just job training, the paper says.
“It involves the development of a whole person, a person who has been challenged and changed by those courses and has been inspired by them to seek out new challenges and opportunities outside the classroom,” Burk writes.
None of this extra help sounds familiar. Perhaps my memory is rusty, but I seem to recall lugging a tattered coursebook around, stewing over which class to take when and calling the phone registration line to set up my semester.
There was a counseling center and helpful faculty. But I don't recall this kind of institutionalized hand-holding.
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“The world has changed,” explains Bill Watts, director of university advising and career services at UNL.
For one thing, college is a LOT more expensive than it was a generation ago.
In 1993, Creighton's undergraduate tuition, room and board cost around $14,000 a year, which would be worth $22,685 in today's dollars. This year, Creighton's annual cost is $42,000.
And there's more scrutiny about whether institutions of higher education are delivering.
Dan Shipp of UNO, which serves more nontraditional (and therefore not as likely to finish) students, offered this: Universities now realize they need to offer more lifeboats and lifeguards to students to move them from A to G — G for graduation.
This is true especially, he said, for first-generation college students.
“If you really are committed to seeing your students succeed,” he said, “you have to be far more intentional and not just assume students will make it to the finish line.”
Creighton designed its program years ago to ease the transition to college and improve a student's overall chance for success.
“To me, retention equals satisfaction,” said Mary Higgins, assistant vice president for student retention. “We wanted to provide a more satisfactory experience.”
But isn't there value in having students find their own way, even if it takes them on a circuitous route?
“We have discussions about that all the time,” Higgins said. “It's a constant balance and you don't want to over-hand-hold and babysit. But on the other hand, you want to meet their needs and be kind and open and helpful. We owe them direction and good advice.”
In the end, however, students have to do their part.
“They have to go to class,” she said. “They have to do the work.”
And they have to hang in for the long haul. The Creighton class helps.
Ratio Studiorum is introducing its freshmen to people they may not otherwise meet, to skills they might not have yet and to a place Creighton hopes they call home.
At least through these four years.