FYC makes plan to cancel small pre-o programs
See “Note from the Editor” in Forum regarding the reporting of this story.
As part of this year’s Bear Beginnings changes, longtime performance “Choices” was removed from orientation week. Next year’s incoming class is poised to have fewer choices for its pre-orientation schedule, too.
Around 700 freshmen participated in a pre-o program last summer, using the opportunity to build social connections in one of 17 programs.
Per a new First Year Center policy, more than half of those programs may be on the chopping block next year: Programs without at least 20 enrolled students by June 15 will be canceled, a cutoff that would have affected nine of the 17 programs last summer.
Freshmen who sign up for a program that doesn’t meet the 20-person minimum would have the option of either moving to their second choice or canceling their registration, FYC leaders said.
The FYC has always reserved the right to cancel a program with fewer than 15 participants, Andrea Farnan, coordinator of First Year Center programs, said, but hadn’t in the past to avoid disrupting the travel schedules of counselors. This year, though, she hopes that putting the rule in writing in advance will prepare the pre-o programs for the change.
Student leaders of the smaller pre-o programs, though, say they oppose the shift and think the FYC has come to a decision without proper consideration of all of the potential implications.
The new policy will go into effect for three chief reasons, Katharine Pei, director of First Year Center programs, said: greater student satisfaction in larger groups, logistical and budgetary problems for smaller programs and the theory behind crafting the best small-group experiences.
Pei said that aggregate data from the past five years of post-program surveys shows that students in smaller groups had more difficulty bonding with a peer group. Specifically, she said, they were less likely to respond positively to the survey question asking if they “interact[ed] with other new students who share a common interest in order to develop a base of peers prior to New Student Orientation.”
Survey data obtained by Student Life from the 2015 programs, however, suggests that students in the smaller groups did not experience problems in this area this past summer.
Combined data for the Freshman Press, KWUR, Louder than a Grenada and Campus Comedy programs—all of which enrolled fewer than 20 freshmen last year—reveals that over 80 percent of respondents said they strongly agreed with that survey statement, while the remaining respondents all said they agreed.
When asked about the disparity between these numbers and the aggregate data she referenced—which she did not release, citing privacy concerns—Pei reiterated that the pre-o advising board that decided on the policy change put more faith in the long-term numbers rather than those from last summer.
Student program leaders, however, were upset about using that metric as justification for the new policy.
Senior Nathan Wolf, leader of Campus Comedy’s 13-person program, said of the group’s survey, “There was a comment that said ‘Don’t change anything; it was awesome.’ So it’s hard to see the cause for why they’re trying to do this.”
For the four programs that shared their data with Student Life, 100 percent of respondents said they would recommend their pre-o to another student.
Junior Ross Arkin, a program leader for last summer’s nine-person As Seen on WUTV program, said he understands the FYC’s hesitation in outsourcing the welcoming of freshmen to campus to other students.
Pre-os are “sort of the Wild West of the college experience,” Arkin said. “They’re like the last fully student-run thing, and it’s weird because there’s a lot of liability going on.”
QUESTIONS OF COST
Another factor behind the new rule is budgeting issues experienced by the smaller pre-o programs, the FYC leaders said. When ordering pre-o necessities such as catered food and program T-shirts, the per-person expense is higher for small groups. Further, if smaller programs enroll fewer students than anticipated, they won’t have enough money to cover their expenses, Farnan said.
Leaders from multiple small programs confirmed to Student Life that they experienced budget deficits over the summer.
That problem was exacerbated by the relatively low cost of the smaller pre-o programs. The nine programs with fewer than 20 participants charged each student an average of just less than $250 last year, while the eight larger programs had an average cost of almost $320.
Pei and Farnan stressed, however, that smaller programs could not just increase their per-person charge to better meet their budgetary requirements while remaining small in attendance.
“We want the programs to be as high quality at the lowest cost possible, because the cost is directly to new students,” Pei said. “Where I think yes, you theoretically could charge $5 more, that $5 could mean that a student doesn’t feel comfortable to be able to attend a program…I worry that by increasing cost, we’re limiting who can attend.”
When asked multiple times how asking students whose program was canceled to switch to a potentially more expensive one is different from letting a smaller program raise its cost, the FYC leaders didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know. I don’t have data on that,” Pei said.
When pressed again for an answer, Pei reiterated that the budget is just one of the factors behind the FYC’s decision.
“Twenty is a good number for about a dozen reasons, not just because of the cost,” she said.
The FYC leaders also resisted the notion that canceling many of the least expensive programs would make pre-o opportunities less accessible to students from low-income backgrounds.
Some of the larger programs may have charges comparable to those of their smaller counterparts, Farnan said.
“Our programs have a range of cost, and I think many are usually around that same range,” she said.
Last summer, all of the groups with an enrollment under 20 charged less than $300, while less than half of the larger programs did.
Farnan also didn’t have an answer when asked what would happen to freshmen informed that their program was canceled after they purchased plane tickets.
“I feel like that’s really hypothetical,” she said.
Another factor behind the new policy is the idea that successful groups often total between 15 and 25 participants, Pei said. Larger pre-o programs abide by this guideline as they subdivide into smaller groups of that size during activities.
Smaller program leaders questioned the effectiveness of increasing group size to meet this theoretical benchmark.
“It’s not like five extra kids are going to be the difference between an extremely gratifying experience and a mediocre one,” senior Eleni Anas, a leader for the 15-person KWUR program, said. “It’s about what the actual program is, what you’re doing, how you’re facilitating that experience for the kids.”
FYC leaders added that they were concerned that they received around a dozen calls over the summer from students who were worried about being placed in small programs.
“Even though it might be a handful of people who are calling, that’s something that we need to take into consideration,” Pei said. She also suggested that current students advocating for smaller groups do so because of their limited personal experiences.
“For them, it’s like, my program was great and I had a positive experience, so I wouldn’t want [a different] one, but if they were in [a larger program], I would hope that they would also still have a positive experience,” she said.
But for junior Shaun Ee, one of six participants in WU-SLam’s “Louder than a Grenada” (LTAG) program two years ago, the intimacy of his pre-o experience was a necessary component of his adjustment to college.
When he arrived on campus, Ee said, two aspects of his background were influencing his comfort level in a new location: He was an international student, and he was still “in the closet” as a gay man.
“LTAG really helped me deal with that in a small-group environment, which wouldn’t have been possible in this bigger-group environment,” Ee said. “It definitely helped in terms of pushing me forward in getting to be more comfortable with who I was, which was huge for me personally.”
Ee, who has helped staff the Louder than a Grenada program the last two years, suggested that rather than rely on aggregate numbers, the FYC listen to the stories of past pre-o participants who have excelled in small-group environments.
“Last I heard, it was ‘our names, our stories,’ not ‘our names, our student evaluations,’” he said.
PRE-O AS RECRUITMENT
Most pre-o programs are tied to specific Student Union groups, and several leaders of the smaller programs expressed concerns that without a dedicated pre-o, their affiliated group would suffer with recruitment.
Leaders from the WUTV and WU-SLam programs said that many of their new members learn about their groups directly from their associated pre-o.
“You can view [the new policy] as kind of suffocating our community,” Wolf said. “If you can’t reach the people who have similar interests to you, then you can’t be a group.”
But the FYC leaders said that these connections, while a “happy coincidence” for many pre-o programs, aren’t a priority because their focus—and the programs’ focus—is on the incoming freshmen’s experience.
“The purpose of pre-orientation from our standpoint is to provide new students with a small-group experience based on an interest that they opt into,” Pei said. “Recruiting is not a goal of pre-o, because if it were, then we’d have 350 SU [Student Union] pre-os.”
Students from smaller programs responded that they think recruitment for their SU group is important not just for the health of the group but to open doors for the freshmen themselves. Many program leaders joined their organizations because of their experience in the affiliated pre-o.
“It sets them up for success in ways that they don’t know about yet,” Mikkel Snyder, a 2013 graduate who founded the WU-SLam program as a student, said. “If the programs weren’t available, that option would have never existed.”
Multiple Louder than a Grenada alumni have joined WU-SLam after participating in the pre-o and gone on to win contests and receive national recognition for their poetry, Snyder added
Pei suggested that groups with historically low attendance could merge to increase freshman interest—WUTV and KWUR, for instance, could form an inclusive “media pre-o” with different tracks for TV and radio. This combined pre-o would join together for meals and social events while remaining separated during their program activities.
But those student leaders contested the suggestion that combining for meals would increase student interaction, arguing that students in the same track will instead naturally flock together at meals.
However, FYC leaders stressed that they don’t plan on making any exceptions for groups that fall short of the 20-person cutoff.
“If they have historical data from five years that show that they have never had more than 15 participants, regardless of the ‘less than 20’ rule, I think it’s time to look at your program, because there’s clearly not a strong interest from students,” Pei said.
Farnan and Pei said they welcome the chance to have a conversation with students upset by the policy, and the program leaders asserted that they plan to engage with the FYC and petition its leaders to revoke the rule.
“The point of the FYC is to demonstrate an inclusive environment at Wash. U. and to make the transition to college a lot easier for freshmen, and by eliminating these programs…you’d be going against all of that,” Wolf concluded. “It’s counterintuitive, and I don’t see any logical reason why what they’re doing is fulfilling their mission statement.”