UMass Lowell Finds a Little Bribery Helps Freshmen Focus

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA PIRO

LOWELL- They tempted them with prizes and gifts. They let them wear pajamas. And it worked.

Students showed up to class.

The Live and Learn program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell started two years ago as a way to entice OK, even trick unfocused students into participating in their freshman year of college, which, for many, can turn into a wasted year of adjusting to new freedom, overwhelming independence and confusion.

Kids responded so well to the carrot-and-stick trick that the program has swelled to fill an entire residence hall this year, with more expansion for the future planned.

And it wasn't even that painful.

"We sold it on the benefit of rolling out of bed, grab your breakfast and wear your slippers to class," said Larry Siegel, dean of student life. "Then they will slowly migrate into doing it for the right reasons."

The program, available for no extra tuition cost, was targeted at kids enrolled as undeclared liberal arts students. The university, which sprawls across two campuses in Lowell, assigned those students to dorm rooms on a couple of floors at Fox Hall. Then administrators dragged chairs and desks into a few rooms at the residence hall conveniently equipped with a cafeteria down below and offered them a handful of classes, faculty and adviser office hours, eliminating the need to get up early, walk or park a vehicle.

"We had a pajama party in the beginning," said Siegel. "They loved it."

The university went further, offering students prizes if they attended a certain number of personal development seminars. There were "little incentives," said Siegel, like hockey tickets, theater tickets, sweatshirts and bus trips to New York City and amusement park Six Flags.

The program is catching on so fast that it swelled from a membership of 83 students last year to 320 this year enough for UMass Lowell to refurbish Bourgeois Hall into a residence solely for Live and Learn students. Administrators refinished the rooms, ordered new furniture and added computer labs and tutoring rooms to Fox Hall's in-house academic offerings.

"Rather than having freshmen pay their dues, we changed it to one of the best campus experiences," said Siegel.

The program does not have the "nerd" connotation that one might imagine could develop, considering the word "learn" is in the title. Bourgeois Hall's residents include varsity athletes, academics and artistically inclined students.

"They're all in it together," said Bonnie Maitland, the hall's resident director. "They're excited about everything. It's only been (a few) weeks, but the programs here have been in high attendance."

The program has also paid off academically. Of last year's 83 students, 94 percent of them were academically successful. Their grades were at least 10 percent higher than those of freshmen who did not participate in the program, said Siegel.

It has turned into such a popular program that more kids applied to participate this year than the program could hold. This year, 320 undeclared students are enrolled as Live and Learners.

"I get up, I go have breakfast and then I'm in there," said Amy Drake, a freshman from Bellingham, who has made her 8:30 a.m. philosophy class more times than she may have expected otherwise.

School administrators have set their sights on even bigger things for next year converting Leitch Hall over the summer into the second exclusively Live and Learn dorm for a total of 650 open slots or 90 percent of the freshmen student body.

"We want to give them the support to be successful, rather than bringing them in and hoping they survive," said Siegel.