Retaining Your Freshmen and/or Newest Cult Members

How to keep people enrolled in your college and/or cult.

Inside Higher Ed reports that for “an increasing number of college administrators, hosting an opening convocation ceremony is not just tradition for tradition’s sake; many believe the ritual can improve student retention.”

The University of Vermont started a new convocation ceremony two years ago:

Instead of being held mid-week after courses have started, Vermont’s convocation now occurs the night before classes begin. Also, the event is now mandatory for incoming students, or as mandatory as an event can be without punishment for lack of attendance. Instead of just hearing from the president, incoming students now hear an address from an author whose book the class was assigned to read over the summer. (This year, students heard from Tracey Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, and took part in a question and answer session with him.) Finally, incorporating the new convocation with an existing tradition, students process down the streets of Burlington to the university’s green overlooking Lake Champlain, where they take part in a candlelit ceremony at twilight.

One can only assume that students then use their own blood to sign a loyalty oath printed on paper made from native Vermont trees.

It seems intuitively unlikely that something like this could really affect retention rates (Vermont’s one year of data since instituting the new convocation showed no change), and it also seems like a flashy, overly ritualistic example of money better spent elsewhere. Yes, those first few days at school can be disorienting for some students, but there have to be better—and less creepy—ways to welcome students into the fold than mass ritual.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.