CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marshall University President Stephen Kopp worked down the table, asking each of us how many professors we remembered from our college days, people who really stood out and made a difference.The answers varied between one and five, but they all shared the same qualities. Each one took an individual interest in students, challenging, encouraging and helping us along. And they made Kopp's point.Professors can make all the difference for a student who is struggling with college, whether academically, socially or economically. Kopp wants to get to the point where Marshall graduates remember all their profs as someone who made a difference in their lives.First, that means more graduates. In a larger discussion with Gazette editors last week, Kopp listed the ways Marshall is working to keep students at Marshall once they get there and to graduate them on time:First is "invasive advising," making sure students register for required classes promptly and catching problems earlier. A new computerized tracking system should help. It can easily tell students and advisers which courses they need to complete to satisfy university, college and program requirements. Theoretically, that's what your academic adviser is for. But the old method of trying to divine the truth from different parts of the course catalog was a logic puzzle unto itself. It was slow and prone to error. This system will be a tool for both students and their advisers, Kopp said. It will make that part of the process more efficient.Advisers are also concentrating on helping students to match their interests and skills to their goals, and to identify the steps required to reach those goals.
His point echoes something I discovered about education a long time ago. Technology is nice. Buildings are important. Good texts and working facilities make a difference. But education is a very personal process, and it absolutely depends on the relationships students can form with others on the quest with them, both teachers and fellow students. Opportunities to build those relationships often get lost in discussions of education.Marshall is doing some soul-searching, too. Do you really need 128 hours of credit to graduate? Some programs have been reduced, and improved, Kopp said, to only 120 hours. That's significant because even if you take 15 hours a semester -- increasingly difficult for students who work -- that's four and a half years to finish. And students frequently drop back to 12 hours a semester, the minimum to be considered a full-time student, to accommodate work and other demands. That leads to more demands for financial aid, students taking on greater debt and taking longer to begin careers.Compared to other West Virginia public schools, Marshall ranks well, but still, only 69.8 percent of freshmen return to Marshall the following year. The retention rate goes up to 76.1 if you count students who simply transfer to another school.At Marshall, 46.6 percent of students graduate within six years, better than most of the state's "four-year" colleges, but still below the state average of 48.5 percent. The national rate is about 57 percent.These are the numbers Kopp thinks he can budge with earlier and more attentive advising, by better matching students to degree programs, and by actually expecting them to finish."If you feel good about what you're doing, if you feel like 'Somebody really cares about me,' you're not going to leave," Kopp said.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.