March 08, 2007

Officials see advantages to residential college

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — As preparations continue for the first residential college within Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Engineering, there already are indications that the approach contributes to students' success.

Data for the last two fall semesters show the average grade point average of engineering students living together on the same residence hall floors is one-half point higher than that of engineering students not living together on the same floors.

"I think what we are doing is creating an academic community here with a commitment toward positive peer pressure," said Bruce C. Chrisman, a coordinator in the College of Engineering. "We are talking about taking the students who are committed to being successful and have that rub off on as many people as you can."

In September, the college received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates. The multi-faceted program targets retention of freshmen and sophomores. The plan — which is in place for fall 2007 — includes expanding the college's summer bridge program; providing engineering-designated sections of several courses; and developing an Engineering Residential College in three Thompson Point residence halls for freshmen and sophomore engineering students.

Incoming freshmen and sophomores must live in Abbott, Bailey or Pierce residence halls. Thirty peer mentors, mostly sophomores and juniors, will also live in the residence halls, and tutoring will be available four nights a week in nearby Lentz Hall. In addition, 25 to 35 industrial or practicing engineering mentors, as well as faculty mentors, will meet with students in seminars and meetings.

By specifically targeting retention in the first two years, the college wants graduation rates of incoming freshmen to increase from an average of 37 percent to 67 percent in five years, interim associate dean John W. Nicklow said. From 1997 to 2003, retention rates were 66 percent for freshmen and 69 percent for sophomores. Nicklow wants to see that increase to 80 percent for freshman and 90 percent for sophomores over the life of the project.

The college has been working with University Housing Program Coordinator Kathie A. Lorentz and Associate Director Beth A. Scally on a project that officials say originated 10 years ago.

"Every year we do something a little different, but this is where we wanted to be," Lorentz said.

The capacity within the three residence halls is 336; Chrisman doesn't foresee any problem filling them. College officials responded to the few concerns expressed by parents and some students, and "they were on board" once they learned about the reasoning for the residential college, Nicklow said.

The college is doing everything it can to help students succeed, Nicklow said. He points to the average GPA, which is between 2.7 and 2.8 when the engineering students live and study together, compared with 2.2 and 2.4 when they do not, as a strong indicator for a built-in, living-learning community.

Chrisman said that when officials asked the college's most successful students what they do, the answer was that those students makes their schedules together, go to class together, study together and live together.

"The actions of our students would indicate this is the way to go," he said.

Because of the high percentage of engineering students on their respective campuses, schools such as University of Missouri-Rolla, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Bucknell University, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology offer built-in living-learning communities, Chrisman said.

There are institutions with residential colleges, but none assembled in a way that includes peer mentors and designated activities, Nicklow said. A residential college builds on the idea of a living-learning community that includes a positive peer support network, he said.

Students will have a common class schedule — with all freshmen taking an Introduction to Engineering class. Students could also enroll for one or more engineering-designated courses together, such as math, speech communication and English.

Because some classes will be in the residence halls, it should not be surprising if a student who is missing a class receives a knock on their door from an instructor who walked across the hall, Nicklow said.

Sophomores are key, because they typically go through what is called a "sophomore slump," Scally said.

"Maybe they had a successful first year but then they start to question and wonder what they are really doing," she said. "You have an opportunity with them all in the same area to address some of their needs. They have the support basis to help them get through that time period. That is critical for sophomores."

The focus, however, is not solely on academics but will also encompass other integral aspects of college life, Nicklow said. In addition to going to one class per week with students and leading study groups twice a week, peer mentors will take students to different campus events throughout the year.

"The idea of building a learning community and positive support network doesn't mean this is all they do and they are not allowed to interact with others," Nicklow said. "There will be plenty of opportunities to interact with a broader group of people in terms of culture and diversity."

Peer mentors will receive $10-per-hour, the equivalent of an undergraduate assistantship, Nicklow said. College officials will ask mentors to not hold a second job, and will assess that on a case-by-case basis.

"If they are going to hold other jobs we want them to be conducive to their peer-mentoring and to their academic performance," Nicklow said.

University Housing will work with peer mentors prior to the start of classes, with training in areas including conflict resolution and sensitivity. Peer mentors will also meet with College of Engineering staff on a regular basis.