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UI explores reasons students drop out

BY LAUREN MILLS | DECEMBER 17, 2009 7:30 AM

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UI officials are seeking answers about why students leave the university early, and they’re asking the students themselves.

The Early Intervention Committee, which identifies students who are experiencing academic or other difficulties, is conducting interviews with students who choose to drop out.

Committee members are also trying to ensure students are informed about support services, such as the University Counseling Service.

“Sometimes, people paint themselves into a corner and say ‘This is it,’ ” said Larry Lockwood, the assistant provost for enrollment services. “We may need to be more in their faces about where help is at.”

As part of the university’s efforts to identify reasons for a retention rate that is lower than officials would like, the committee — formed in April as part of the Student Success Team — is asking questions of students who choose to leave.

Though the data from the current study are not yet available, the last state Board of Regents’ study of the three state universities, conducted in 2002, demonstrated that the major reason students left the UI was financial, followed by the inability to achieve a sense of belonging.

Sam Cochran, the director of University Counseling Service, said he supported the findings. Officials do not have data on the number of students who have dropped out due, in part, to depression, he said. Feelings of isolation are among the many symptoms of depression, but are not necessarily definitive.

UI officials are planning to use part of a potential tuition hike to fund retention efforts, but it’s unclear if the Counseling Service would receive any of the funding.

Few other universities in the Big Ten conduct exit surveys, although the spokesperson for the University of Wisconsin-Madison said a “safety net” will be put into place next year to provide a consultation process for students at risk of dropping out.

The university has the lowest counselor-to-student ratios of the three state Board of Regents’ universities at 1-2,950.

Though the University Counseling Service is pretty much booked up, Cochran said, he estimates that there are a number of students who choose to not seek treatment.

“It is really hard to be a good student if you have untreated depression,” he said.

According to a study headed by Daniel Eisenberg of the University of Michigan, students who suffer from depression are about twice as likely to drop out compared with their peers. The study also suggested that students with depression were likely to see a drop in their GPAs.

Although studies have shown women to be twice as likely as men to suffer depression, Cochran said, the statistic could be the result of biased criteria.

“It is my belief that how individuals show depression is culturally learned,” he said. While women are more likely to cry, show sadness, or seek help, he said, “men are more likely to puff themselves up and get angry or irritable.”

One of the challenges with recognizing depression is that it tends to come and go, Cochran said.

Some people may be on the verge of going to get help, but then the depression lifts, and they put it off.

Another challenge of dealing with depression is students who attempt to “self-medicate,” turning to drugs or alcohol, Cochran said.

In the general population, approximately 10 percent of people have problems with drugs and alcohol, said Dave Barloon, an advanced nurse practitioner at the UI Chemical Dependency Center.

That number rises to around 30 to 40 percent among individuals with mental illness, such as depression.

Cochran emphasized the importance of getting professional help.

“Depression is too painful,” he said. “It is too difficult to bear for people who are in the throes of major depression.”


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