Like many institutions, the State University of New York's College at Old Westbury has been paying increasing attention to the academic success of its students -- particularly to the fate of first-year students. Last year the college introduced a first-year seminar course, and it has just approved a mandate that all first-year students participate in a community engagement experience that will be "embedded" into their coursework. As the college tries to burnish its academic reputation, says Michael Kinane, assistant to the president for advancement, the goal of these efforts is to "make sure our students take academics as seriously as they need to to achieve the ultimate end -- a degree."
The college has put in place one other policy to drive that point home to freshmen and to students in general -- one that troubles some student affairs administrators elsewhere.
Last fall, the college began requiring that students maintain a 2.0 cumulative grade point average to live in campus dorms. This month, Old Westbury officials alerted 94 of the college's 1,100 on-campus students that based on their first semester grades, they would have to move out of the residence halls before the start of the new term. About a third of the affected students were freshmen, meaning that 7-8 percent of the college's 440 first-year students were asked to leave the dorms.
When the director of Old Westbury's first-year program posted a note on a listserv asking her peers whether such policies were common, the reaction was swift -- and highly critical. "All of the data we have collected at our institution suggests that first-year students become more academically at-risk if they live off-campus during their first semester," one official wrote. "Requiring already struggling students to move off-campus mid-year could have some unintended results both in terms of retention and academic success."
"If the student is not suspended for getting a 2.0, I can’t imagine kicking them out of the residence halls," wrote Leslie Chandler, coordinator of student orientation and transfer affairs at Northwest Missouri State University. "If anything, we would want to keep them on campus longer."
Kinane acknowledges that the decision to apply the residence hall policy to first-year students was "the most complex part of it," as he put it -- a choice that some officials on the campus opposed. But he defends the overall approach, and says that Old Westbury officials decided that a "uniform approach to the policy was what we needed to take."
The college has sought to "enhance and strengthen our academic profile," in part by raising its admissions standards, since Calvin O. Butts III became its president in 1999, Kinane says. Viewing living on campus as a privilege and not a right, he says, college officials concluded that requiring students to achieve a minimum grade point average to stay in the dorms was "a key way that we ... hold them accountable for taking their academics seriously and moving themselves forward."
Old Westbury administrators first sought to put the policy in place two years, but it backed off amid criticism that "some didn't feel we had given people enough heads-up, and didn't communicate well enough when we did it."
Another campus panel decided last year to go forward with the idea, Kinane says. So when students arrived on the campus this fall, he says, Old Westbury officials made clear, "This is here, this is what we're going to hold you responsible for," Kinane says. In response, "we saw record use of our academic support services, in terms of both writing and math, as students made sure they were trying to make their grades." The average GPA for freshmen this fall was 2.85, Kinane says.
But 86 of about 3,300 students at Old Westbury, about 1,100 of whom live on campus, fell below the 2.0 mark. In recent days, the students received letters and phone calls notifying them that "they are not expected back in residence halls due to their grades," Kinane says. Twenty-seven of them were freshmen, and they, like the others, can either find a place near the campus or "become part of our commuter population" by moving in with their parents or others, says Kinane.
Some foresee, or at least fear, another outcome. "Most students will have to withdraw without housing," Laura Anker, interim director of Old Westbury's First-Year Experience program, wrote in an e-mail message sent to the First-Year Experience listserv. Anker could not be reached for further comment.
Student affairs administrators offered generally negative assessments of Old Westbury's new policy, though most acknowledged that they had relatively little information about how much the college does to support students academically, both leading up to and in the wake of their expulsion from the dorms.
"If their students are coming in, signing a contract, that may be a different dynamic," says Ever R.C. Grier, a professor of student development at Montgomery College, a two-year institution in Maryland. But "I've always taken the view that generally, freshman had a year to more or less prove yourself. This seems to work against retention to some extent."
Many campus administrators embrace the idea of a "safe zone" in the freshman year. Chandler, of Northwest Missouri State, says that her institution requires all freshmen (at least those under 21) to live on campus for a year, a common stance among those who commented on Old Westbury's new policy. In an interview, Chandler said that the college cuts first-year students a little slack in terms of academic requirements; while sophomores and above must attain a 2.0 GPA to stay in good academic standing and are suspended if they fall below that mark two semesters in a row, first-semester students must sustain a 1.75 GPA and are not suspended if they fall below 2.0 in the second semester.
"Most students experience a little bit of a slip in their first semester, be in from time management issues or a lot of other stuff going on in the first year," she says. "We feel like we would rather take them under our wing and tell us, 'What’s happening here?' Not, 'Man you really screwed up, you can’t live here anymore."
George D. Kuh, a national expert on student retention and Chancellor's Professor and director of Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research, notes that the 2.0 mark set by Old Westbury "is not a high bar." But he, too, questions whether telling an academically struggling student to leave the campus will necessarily improve the situation. "The research shows that if you live off campus and commute, your grades tend to be poorer. Social integration issues are harder for commuters."
While most student affairs and retention officials reject the idea of using access to student housing as an incentive for academic success, the concept is not unheard of elsewhere. For three years, New Jersey's Seton Hall University has required students -- including freshmen -- to maintain a 2.0 average to stay off probation, and a slightly lower 1.8 grade point average to live in its dorms. Its reasoning sounds a lot like Old Westbury's: "Living on campus is a privilege," says Jas Verem, assistant director of the First Year Experience at Seton Hall. "We had a shortage of housing, and the approach we took was that students are here for academics, and if you perform well, you'll remain in housing. We did it because a lot of our students were just using [campus housing] to be away from home, and not taking it seriously. "
But the big difference between its standard and the SUNY campus's -- besides the lower GPA threshold -- is that those who fall short can seek an exemption by submitting an application in which they "look back at where they think they've gone off track and look ahead at how they plan to improve," says Verem. If their plans are deemed "credible," they are permitted to stay in the dorms for the second semester. (Students at Old Westbury cannot appeal, but they can reapply for campus housing when they push their GPA's back above 2.0.)
Of the 70-100 students a year who fail to maintain the necessary GPA at Seton Hall, most apply for an exemption, and the vast majority of those submit credible plans and remain in campus housing, Verem says.
"Our approach is not cut and dried," he says. "We really try to get to the bottom of what their trouble was. If it was academic, our freshman studies program will work with them to take care of it. If it was more cultural or social, housing will work on it.
"We find that getting students to reflect, themselves, on what they think went bad, and forcing them to implement a plan to try to improve, helps them work through it. Most of them make it."