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The Podium

Making the most of college

The Class of ’17 we have all recently welcomed to campus will probably spend freshman year like generations before them: finding their way around, taking introductory courses, making new friends, and perhaps — courtesy of the college dining services — putting on the “Freshman 15.”

But nowadays, colleges cannot afford to settle for that age-old rite of passage.

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Students and their families—not to mention President Obama—have grown increasingly alarmed about the rising costs of a college education, and they are expecting an appropriate return on their investment.

To achieve that return in an ultra-competitive job market, new graduates will need to arrive with more than a major and diploma in hand. They will also need to demonstrate creativity, teamwork, and critical thinking—some of the so-called 21st-century skills that have become the buzzwords of the educational world.

Adding to those concerns is a survey released last January by the educational organization ACT, which found that only 67.3 percent of freshmen at four-year private colleges came back for their sophomore year — the lowest level in the 30 years that ACT has tracked retention rates.

But what if you could grab the interest of these students in their very first term and give them an experience so compelling that they wouldn’t even think of transferring or dropping out? What if freshmen were challenged to develop those 21st-century skills as soon as orientation was finished? What if these students could collectively undertake the kinds of projects that would propel them through successful undergraduate careers?

A number of undergraduate engineering programs already assign first-year students projects formerly reserved for upperclassmen. At the University of Colorado, Boulder, for instance, a required freshman course asks student teams to design and build inventions in a range of areas — from assistive technology to robotics.

The concrete outcomes of these efforts are prelude to the engineering careers that will follow. And while the occasional liberal arts college may offer civic engagement or study abroad programs to first year students, the majority of four-year schools stick to a more traditional model.

Our college has been in that majority, but in the fall of 2014, freshman year here will look decidedly different. Seven teams of our faculty, staff, students, and trustees have researched and developed yearlong, action-oriented projects around the central focus of the Nichols College mission statement —leadership. A presidential task force currently is considering which one to implement.

The proposals range from having competing teams of students design their own businesses to having all freshmen create a nearly two-mile walking trail through the woods surrounding our campus.

Any build-a-business team depends on different members taking the lead in areas such as marketing, strategic planning, finances, and accounting — the kind of majors in our business-oriented curriculum that many students are likely to complete.

Along the way, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cooperation would flourish. The winning team also would receive the use of a truck during their sophomore year to help get their business on the road, literally.

Likewise the large-scale trail-cutting project would require competent management of every function from scheduling as many as 300 workers; to planning the trail’s location; to deploying student teams and equipping them with the tools to work through the brush; to providing the food services needed for daylong forays into the woods.

In subsequent years, the Class of ’17 will find themselves in classes retooled to leverage the leadership skills developed in year one.

A presidential task force will recommend a final project choice by the end of 2013. (We have also committed to a program that will take 20 or 30 freshmen to England on their 2015 spring break, with the cost of the trip partially defrayed by financial aid packages.)

Are freshmen ready for these ventures and responsibilities? We think so, provided that we make serious demands of them. It’s also important to require the involvement of the entire class, rather than just the most motivated. And our experience tells us that first-year students are more likely than upperclassmen to become active participants if their college asks them to.

Freshman year in college may once have represented the first step in “finding yourself.” That time-honored process is still alive and well on today’s campuses, but it can’t be a fulltime job. Not in this day and age.

The possibilities of what freshmen can accomplish and the demands they will face upon graduation all argue that they should hit the ground running.

Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College.
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