Nearly one-third of entering freshmen students in Arkansas drop out of their four-year public university or college by the end of the first year.
A local group hopes to improve that number and keep students in school by connecting them to the Conway community, said senior pastor E.C. Maltbia. The True Holiness Saints Center "Back to School College Day 2012" will kick off at 11 a.m. Aug. 26.
"We feel like [the event] is necessary," Maltbia said. "We feel like everyone needs someone in their corner."
Arkansas has a high number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, said Shane Broadway, interim director of the state higher education department. Many of those freshmen don’t know where to go in the community, are overwhelmed by school and aren’t connected to any groups. They get homesick or disenfranchised and drop out, Broadway said.
Those students need to "be part of something," he said.
"The sooner groups can involve students, the more likely they are to succeed as a student," Broadway said.
That’s what makes College Day important, Maltbia said. Incoming freshmen are introduced to the city, officials, upperclassmen and mentors, he said.
College Day — held annually for more than 10 years — draws up to about 600 people every year. College presidents attend, and state representatives and city officials come, Maltbia said. The event is cosponsored by the Inter-denominational Christian Council, state Rep. Linda Tyler, Sheriff’s Office major Andy Shock, Rocky Lawrence and First Security Bank, according to a news release. A local restaurant will provide lunch.
Venders will be at the event too. Students can talk to police and firemen from the Conway Fire Department, Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office, Conway Police Department and the University of Central Arkansas Police Department. The atmosphere during the event will be "electric," Maltbia said.
While College Day is also supposed to remind college students that "they should have God in their lives," it’s other purpose is to be a support system for students who are far from home. That community connection will help students stay in school, meet their potentials and stay in Conway, Maltbia said.
Other institutions agree.
"Hendrix College is supportive of this community event because of the positive messages it sends to students, and its emphasis on making good decisions in their lives," said Frank Cox, chief communications officer, in email Friday. "Plus, helping college students feel welcome is especially important to those who are far away from their homes and families — some for the first time in their lives."
At UCA’s Board of Trustee retreat earlier this month, President Tom Courtway said his own son felt disengaged from a college in Georgia. He didn’t feel like he fit in, withdrew from the school and came to UCA, Courtway said. Keeping students in college is important enough to UCA that the school has created a litany of retention programs — including one that provides mentors, according to UCA documentation passed out to trustees.
Universities statewide want to improve their retention figures. For freshmen entering UCA for the first time in 2005, in six years, only about 47.5 percent successfully graduated from the college, according to a 2011 higher education department report. That’s better than the statewide figure — 43.9 percent — over the same time period.
Improving that figure is important because having successful students means a better economy in Conway and Arkansas, Broadway and Maltbia said.
"I think we should all be concerned about our future," Maltbia said. "To some degree, it will ultimately affect all of us — their success rate."