The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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SMU losing its best students

Is SMU too easy?

For many students, the answer is yes, according to interviews and records. In fact, dozens of SMU’s best students leave after their first year because they say they are not sufficiently challenged in the classroom.

Many who choose to stay echo this criticism.

“SMU is too easy academically. I’ve been in many departments, and in each one there were classes that were easier than those I had in high school,” said Todd Baty, an SMU senior majoring in history and music. “I think SMU has failed to adapt as a higher level institution. Expectations of students have not progressed as higher education has.”

Dr. Dennis Foster, an English professor, says SMU has much to offer but has not made academics its top priority. “As a whole, SMU offers a student almost anything they could get anywhere,” he said. “But as a whole, we don’t demand that the student body really orient itself towards academics.”

While SMU attracts many students focused on academics, it loses a significant number of them after their first or second year. Many leave because they say the learning environment is not what it should be. “Of the students I talk to, the main reason they say they are leaving is because of the academics,” said Dr. David Doyle, a history professor and the director of SMU’s Honors Program.

According to the most recent data, SMU retained 88 percent of its first-year students. Vanderbilt had a retention rate of 96 percent. Rice retained 97 percent of its first-year students.

SMU conducted exit interviews with many of the first-year students who chose to leave. A significant number said their primary reason for leaving was the lack of a challenging academic environment, according to several faculty members.

James Longhofer, a senior political science major, has witnessed this firsthand. “I’ve known people who left because they weren’t being well-served here,” he said. “They transferred to schools with a better academic reputation, like Washington and Lee and Stanford. If you [SMU] want to attract students who work, we need strong academics.”

The problem has not gone unnoticed by SMU faculty and administrators. This year SMU hired Anthony Tillman, who specializes in helping colleges address academic issues such as retention and graduation rates. In a recent interview, Tillman said he was unaware many students were leaving SMU because it is not academically challenging. His own work has identified other reasons – a lack of community, along with financial and personal problems.

Tillman is not alone in his work. Earlier this year, the SMU Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention issued a report suggesting drugs and partying are a problem in part because students are not challenged in the classroom. The task force, comprised of faculty members, administrators and students, said SMU needs a culture shift, socially and academically. Among its suggestions: adding more Friday classes and requiring comprehensive final exams and projects.

“Academically, the culture shift would be characterized by greater numbers of challenging courses necessitating significant time spent on out-of-class preparation and requirements,” the report states.

Daniel Liu, a senior majoring in engineering management information and systems and a task force member, said one of his first-year classes was a textbook example of the larger problem at SMU. “I made a 98 and I never even opened a book,” he said. “Granted, I was valedictorian in high school, but typically, everyone knows which professors to take to get an easy A.”

Students say adding Friday classes will change little. “It’s not about going to class. It’s about fostering genuine intellectual curiosity,” said Baty, who was selected as the SMU fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in 2007-2008. “It’s about professors that inspire and know how to touch lives.”

Liu said he received the academic training he expected. But, said Liu, he sought difficult classes, attended lectures outside the classroom and participated in challenging extracurricular activities.

“For me, the value of my education was really important to me, and while some students seek out the easy classes, I did the opposite,” he said. “One piece of advice I give students is to explore opportunities. Get to know staff and professors, attend the Tate Lecture Series. When you’re connected, it becomes more than the parties.”

Dr. Doyle agrees. “The academics and academic community are here but you have to look for them,” he said. “Traditionally, SMU is a very social school.”

Internal and external studies of SMU support this observation.

The “Princeton Review,” an online resource on universities, recently ranked SMU No. 4 for “Happiest Students” and No. 4 for “major fraternity and sorority scene.” The task force report says SMU undergraduate students – 40 percent of whom belong to a fraternity or sorority – tend to focus on social acceptance at the expense of academic excellence.

There are encouraging signs. For the past eight years, SMU has increased admissions requirements while also attracting a record number of applications. Applications soared from 4,577 in 2000 to 8,253 in 2007, while the number of first-year students admitted remained about the same, approximately 4,100. During this time period, the average SAT score of an entering freshman at SMU increased by 80 points.

These figures suggest SMU is admitting students with a stronger academic background. Witnessing the departure of these strong students can be discouraging.

“One of the most frustrating things about teaching at SMU is that many of the best students we meet in our first year leave,” said Dr. Foster, a member of the task force. “Last year, two out of 14 students in my Honors English class transferred,” he said.

Dr. Doyle had a similar experience. “Last fall, out of my two classes of 15 students each, I wrote six letters of recommendations,” he said. “Four of those students transferred. They were the best students.”

Last fall, administrators asked students enrolled in Wellness I courses whether they had ever considered leaving SMU. Of the 633 students who answered, 236 – or 35 percent – said yes.

What does the stigma of easy academics at SMU mean? Some students wonder if they are getting their money’s worth. Baty said he struggled to get an education worth $150,000. “I had to fight to get the experience that fits the price tag,” he said. “The fact that I had to fight for it is very telling of academics at SMU.”

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