Was On Iowa! worth the investment?

BY DI STAFF | AUGUST 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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I know I poked a bit of fun at it on Monday, but I think OnIowa will ultimately be worth the investment.

For those unaware, the University of Iowa spent $300,000 on a three-day program for incoming freshmen aiming to develop friendships, build a rapport with the university, and commit to “The IOWA Challenge,” which, to my surprise, is not shotgunning four Bush Lights before 8 a.m. The goal is to improve retention and graduation rates.

It’s hard to put a long-term value on such things as entertainment, social belonging, the taste of a mass-produced and over-cooked hot dog — except maybe in this case.

If tuition for out-of-state students is $25,099 , in-state tuition is $7,765, and the percentage of out-of-state students is 38 percent, the weighted average tuition for a UI student is $14,352, or $7,176 per semester. This means that if 5.97 students (One Chicagoan counts as 0.97 students.) who would have otherwise transferred after this semester graduated from the UI, the $300,000 investment would be worth it.

That’s less than one-seventh of a percent of the 4,500 students who piled onto the Pentacrest this past weekend.

Obviously, this simplified formula ignores the effect of financial aid and doesn’t take into account such things as out-of-state retention rate, but it does give us a general idea of what the value OnIowa is trying to manufacture.

This isn’t just a one-year, hit-and-run type deal — this year acted as somewhat of a beta version of what OnIowa is to become. Mistakes were made, to be sure. From what I hear, the freshmen weren’t exactly thrilled to be “required” (whatever that entailed) to be conscious for OnIowa shenanigans at 8:30 a.m. on their first Saturday.

“They definitely weren’t that much into it on Saturday morning. That was probably the last place they wanted to be right after they moved in,” said senior Jenna Holtz, who worked with OnIowa.

“Yeah, some of them were [passed out]; a lot of them didn’t show up — but the ones who did were the ones who really did want to be there and got a lot out of it, I think.”

Holtz said she and her peers told students about good places to eat, where to get a good cup of coffee, and other upperclassmen wisdom.

“Part of it was talking about different situations, like issues with your roommate, things like that.”

Of course OnIowa wasn’t without its flaws, but it was a step in the right direction. Even with its faults, I think this year’s program will be successful in soliciting 42 additional semesters from a pool of more than 4,500.

— Chris Steinke


For many soon-to-be college freshmen, one of the most alluring aspects of college life is the augmented sense of autonomy — the feeling that, for the first time in one’s life, he or she alone is responsible for organizing and maintaining almost every aspect of herself or himself.

In an effort to help incoming students smoothly transition into such a life, the University of Iowa offered the first-ever OnIowa, a “required” three-day celebration for all freshmen that was meant to immerse them in university life, introduce them to new friends, and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed in their new lives at the university.

While I admit that all of this seems very impressive on paper, after having actually experienced last weekend’s events, I must add that the actual execution of the concept left much to be desired.

According to its own description, OnIowa was a program created to help new students become accustomed to a life of choices and individual approaches — but by labeling the program’s “classroom content” (the group meetings and lectures) as “required,” the event gave the impression of being a mandate on how to live one’s life rather than a resource in discovering that for one’s self.

Over-reliance on such inflexible tools as abbreviations, list models, icebreaker activities, and cliché suggestions on how to succeed in school (“take good notes,” “attend class,” etc.) made the experience feel overly didactic and impersonal. If any knowledge or friends were gained by students, it happened only after both students and leaders moved away from a strict reading of the classroom content and began interacting naturally and honestly — in other words, “despite and without,” not “because of.”

OnIowa worked best in such cases as the proceedings of Kinnick Stadium or the Convocation, when the program was personal and encouraging without being imposing. It worked even better when it gave students downtime to explore campus and meet people on their own in such optional events as magic shows and concerts.

While certainly not all the events need to be as spectacular or defining as these were, a shift toward providing more events that encourage discovering all of the options available to new students as independent adults and minimizing events that come across as “formal instruction in living” would make OnIowa a more pleasing and beneficial experience for all future freshmen.

— Christian Perelló

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