SOCORRO, N.M., October 19, 1999 -- With 1,511 students enrolled at New Mexico Tech this fall semester, student enrollment is currently higher at the state-supported research university than it has been since 1994, says Carl J. Popp, Tech's vice president for academic affairs.
Last fall semester, there were 1,449 students enrolled at Tech, so this semester's student enrollment shows a 4.3 percent increase.
When new freshman and transfer students are singled out, Popp says, the increase in enrollment is even more marked: 13 percent more students in that specific category for a total of 334 new undergraduate faces in the classrooms at New Mexico Tech.
Despite these enrollment gains, if current statistics concerning retention also hold true, one out of four of those new faces won't return to Tech next year.
In an attempt to keep more of those Tech freshmen and transfer students coming back to the university for their sophomore year, school administrators launched the Group Opportunities for Activities and Learning (GOAL) program in 1996.
Since then, students who voluntarily participate in GOAL have typically numbered between 60 and 70 students each semester.
"We group GOAL students together in the same sections of their introductory classes," explains Popp. "GOAL students also live next to each other in the same dormitory. Additionally, we provide opportunities for them to study as groups and also to share various social activities."
Bill Stone, a New Mexico Tech math professor who also serves as director of the GOAL program, says that an important component of the transition program is the "feeling of belonging" which GOAL tends to impart to its participants.
Several GOAL program participants have told Stone that GOAL has helped them "fit in a lot quicker" and, as a result, they feel "more at home" on the Tech campus.
Stone points out that a marked sense of community seems to quickly develop among GOAL students.
"I've even read articles in the student newspaper where students have identified themselves as participants of the GOAL program, even though the stories have nothing to do with GOAL,"
Much of the success of the New Mexico Tech GOAL program in developing a sense of community among its participants can be attributed to the resident assistants (RAs) the program employs and assigns as "live-in mentors" on GOAL floors of campus residence halls, Stone adds.
"The GOAL RAs are largely responsible for planning social activities for our GOAL students, such as sponsoring dances or taking a van full of students to the State Fair," Stone says. "They also keep track of whether or not study groups are working, and often become aware of students who are on the verge of getting into academic problems before anyone else does."
GOAL RA Jeff McDonald concurs that students forming their own "community" is a major benefit of the GOAL program.
"We have 60 or more students in the same classes, all of them away from home, probably for the first time, and, in general, all of them are going through basically the same changes and adjustments," McDonald explains. "GOAL students can look around their classes and see a bunch of people that they live next to, and that makes it a lot easier to form study groups and meet other people. . . . In general, this is added help that most other freshmen don't get.
"Getting to know 60 other students and making friends with them, participating in study groups, living in proximity to your classmates, and getting actively involved with groups and organizations on campus--these are just some of the facets of GOAL which make it less likely that freshmen students are going to leave Tech after one or two semesters," McDonald adds.
As part of the GOAL program, participants are required to take a semester-long class, "Strategies of the Successful Student," which covers germane topics such as academic success skills, community building, and personal and professional development.
Richard Ortega, director of Tech's Office for Advancement, teaches two to three sections of the "Strategies of the Successful Student" class each semester and has observed that students who take the class are generally "more satisfied with their collegiate experience and are more integrated into the university community" than the average Tech freshman.
"GOAL students often begin forming supportive learning communities through study groups and other collaborative learning arrangements," Ortega says, "and this is not something they would have done on their own."
Other important academic skills learned in the "Success" course, as it is commonly known, include developing positive interactions with faculty; accessing campus resources; practical time management; and establishing clear goals, along with personal plans to realize them.
"The 'Success' course also helps to motivate students by giving them a clear understanding of what is involved in pursuing and obtaining a career in a science or engineering field," Ortega asserts. "Likewise, they begin to get a better understanding of the rewards and opportunities these science and engineering careers can bring them."
A committee has been formed at New Mexico Tech to assess what the GOAL program has done so far and to plan the direction that it should take in the future, Stone says.
"Maybe we can eventually expand GOAL into a first-year experience for all new Tech students," he adds. "That would mean we'd be reaching 250 freshmen instead of just 70."
And, if 250 New Mexico Tech freshmen return for their sophomore years, the university's enrollment can only climb and the students would be more successful in their academic achievement.
But even with an expanded GOAL program, getting everyone to stay at Tech through that crucial transition year between freshman and sophomore may not ever be entirely possible.
Popp says there are two types of students who don't return to New Mexico Tech for their sophomore year: those who are having academic difficulty and those who leave in good standing.
"We can try to help out the ones who are having academic difficulties," Popp maintains, "but until we find out why the other students are leaving, there's not much we can do about it. . . . And that's something we're trying to find out."