Sunday, October 28, 2007

As Student Population Skyrockets, More Freshmen Are Leaving Lang

This article runs in the October 29 issue of The New School Free Press.

Sophomore Geoff Kim has a year to go at Eugene Lang College before he transfers, he hopes, to the San Francisco Art Institute.

Kim, a 19-year-old from the Bay Area in California with an interest in conceptual art, decided to attend Lang "to be as far away from California as possible," and to pursue the seminar experience of a small liberal arts college. But he cannot afford Lang's $30,660 a year in tuition. Also, he said he was "surprised" by the classroom experience.

"People were not up to par with their writing skills," he said in a phone interview about his classes last year. During class discussions, he added, "A lot of people just talked a lot of bullshit."

Kim's misgivings point to one of Lang's most persistent problems: the high proportion of freshman who leave after their first year. According to Amos Himmelstein, an Assistant Dean at Lang, a staggering average of 32 per cent, or one out of three students, left after their first year over the past two school years. Between Fall 2006 and Fall 2007, he said, referring to a statistical analysis, 75 out of 283 incoming freshmen left after their first year.

"There were certainly more than we expected," Jon White, the Director of Academic Advising at Lang, said. "We aren't in a position of making gains any longer."

At 1,291 heads, the Lang student population is now more than double the size it was in 2001, and The New School plans to boost the college's population even further. Administrators worry that Lang's attrition rates may grow if the college cannot sustain the population size with more faculty, classrooms and student space.

In September, Lang officials formed the Retention and Attrition Task Force, a fact-finding committee composed of 10 faculty members and officials from the advising, admissions and dean's offices, to get a grip on the phenomenon of freshmen departures and offer some remedies.

Actually finding those statistics is difficult, administrators said, because students can leave for a variety of reasons, including family, health or financial emergencies.

But anecdotal evidence has given the task force members some idea of drop-outs' woes.

Mark Larrimore, a task force member and the Director of First Year Studies, another initiative set up to address the freshmen exodus—and who encouraged freshmen to email him at—said some students leave because they were not prepared for the seminar-style classes.

"They say, 'Wait a minute, I don't like this,'" Larrimore said.

Even if the student knows what they are getting into at Lang, he added, they might leave because they are overwhelmed by the city.

"They come to New York and get freaked out," he added.

In these cases, he said, there is not much an advisor can do—students are better off finding the college that suits their needs, or take some time off trying to figure out what they want to do with their life.

"We don't want to force people to stay here," he added.

Already the administration is working on this issue. At open houses to recruit students, according to Nicole Curvin, the Director of Admissions at Lang, the school has begun to put on mock seminar classes so candidates know what is expected of them.

But freshmen also leave, Larrimore said, because Lang "is not living up to its end of the bargain." Advisors and administrators said that students can find the college too disorganized, other students too unprepared, roommates too difficult to live with, class sizes too large, or classes fill up too quickly.

Kim decided to transfer out this semester in large part because the college is too expensive, and his peers did not seem academically qualified enough to attend the school.

Last year—"by chance," he said—Kim took a number of religious studies courses. He also took a post-modern poetry class and the first-year writing seminar. Since Lang is well known for its writing department, which covers fiction, poetry, nonfiction and journalism, he expected students to have good writing skills.

"That was not the case," he said.

Lang advisors said that some students also feel that the Lang community is not diverse enough.

"Freshmen and sophomores have expressed the feeling of being uncomfortable in what they've referred to as a 'vanilla institution,'" Brandon Graham, an academic advisor, wrote over email. Some students, he said, are concerned that over half of the students at the college are white.

Over the past few years White has worked with Lang's Diversity Committee, composed of faculty and administrators, to recruit more faculty and students of color, and to develop programs and curricula that more adequately address issues of ethnic diversity.

Nicole Curvin, the director of admissions at Lang and a member of the task force, said that the admissions office is focused on recruiting students from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Five admissions officers, she said, have traveled to public schools and community colleges in the New York City area, around the country, and even to Asia and Africa, to diversify the student population.

Another reason for the attrition spike could be that Lang is becoming too overcrowded, since the student population has more than doubled over the past five years. In 2001, according to that year's New School Fact Book, the student population was 588.

The population surge appears not to have affected the number of senior and junior year students who leave the college. From Spring 2003 to Fall 2007, Himmelstein said, the school's average attrition rate for all of its students has been an average of 12.5 per cent. This is an improvement from Spring 2002 to Fall 2002, when attrition was at 17 per cent.

"So we're doing better," Himmelstein said.

The attrition rate for freshmen has also improved. Between 2002 and 2004, average attrition rates hovered around the mid-twenty percentile. But between Fall 2005 and Fall 2007, the average freshmen class attrition grew to 32 per cent, two points shy of its level in 1998-2001.

"We just got a little worse," Himmelstein added.

Over the past five years, the university administration has focused on building the university's undergraduate class. Tuition, health insurance and dorm costs bring in 84% of the university's revenues, according to a presentation last semester by Nancy Steir, Vice President for Budget and Planning.

Administrators said that bringing in more undergrads will help fund a number of construction projects and academic initiatives, like hiring more full-time faculty and developing university-wide programs, which have been championed by the New School President Bob Kerrey and Provost Ben Lee, who oversees the academic initiatives at the university.

Securing financing for these projects is contingent on increased revenues.

"The [university] administration has got this business model," Larrimore, the task force member, said. "They want the revenue."

Himmelstein said that Provost Ben Lee has tossed around the idea of boosting Lang's population to 2,000 by 2014.

Curvin, the Lang admissions director, said the college has not lowered its admissions standards to bring in more students. The college, she said, is gaining national recognition. Over the past two years, she said, Lang received 50 per cent more applications than the year before. Two admissions officers read every application and professors often offer their own expertise. So the admissions office has been able to accommodate the demand for a larger student body.

"We're trying to maintain the soul of Eugene Lang College," Curvin said, "while also working with university requirements and things that they're planning at the university level."

Despite these plans, Lang lacks enough real estate to provide offices for all of its faculty members and enough community space for Lang students to mill around, study, or hold club meetings.

The administration intends to tear down 65 5th Ave. this summer and begin construction on a new, 18-story building. This will lead to even greater space crunch over the next several years.

Members of the Retention and Attrition Task Force worry that students will suffer if student population increases while the construction begins.

"There's no room to grow, unless they manage to somehow pull classes out of the air," Larrimore said. "I think the next two years are going to be hairy."

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