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A Trend Toward Bribing College Students Into Well-Roundedness


ST. LOUIS — First, a clarification:

It's true that students at Missouri's William Woods University soon will be able to earn big tuition breaks simply by having fun.

But not every kind of fun qualifies.

Keg-party fun does not. Nor does Ping-Pong-with-the-roomie fun. Veg-out-by-the-TV fun won't cut it either.

No, this small liberal arts college will knock nearly 40% off its tuition only for students who have the kind of fun that enhances an education or boosts campus spirit. Fun like attending a women's basketball game. Swinging by a faculty art exhibit. Joining a book group. Performing in a play. Jamming at an on-campus concert.

$5,000 Off Tuition Tab

In a program that national education experts call unique, William Woods will slash its $13,200 tuition by $5,000 next year for every incoming freshman who pledges to participate in a set number of extracurricular activities.

The college will give each activity a point value. Serving on student government, for instance, might be worth four points, while playing intramural volleyball might merit one. Every freshman who earns 45 points will snag the discount--and will be eligible for a similar break for the sophomore year.

"In recent years, student involvement in extracurriculars has been declining," Dean Larry Kramer said. "We're interested in encouraging students to enjoy the total college experience, not just what goes on in their classrooms."

But is it possible to bribe a student to be well-rounded?

William Woods officials feel confident their program will truly transform students--and not just fill the bleachers with warm bodies.

Although many freshmen likely will attend events grudgingly at first, perhaps dragging themselves to a black history month program for the sake of that $5,000, Kramer predicts that most will soon develop a genuine enthusiasm for campus life. Not only that, he fully expects students to become so used to joining and doing that they'll carry on the habit even after graduation.

"Once they get that job as a computer specialist, we still want them to go to the symphony, to the theater, support the local zoo," he said.

Education experts say that's a worthy--and achievable--goal. "There is an infectious quality about these things," said David Warren, president of the National Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities. "Once they take the first step, students say, 'Hey, this is kind of interesting.' "

Warren cautioned that William Woods' program might produce a more insular campus, with students more apt to take in a movie--for points--at the international film fest than to spend a night serving meals in the local soup kitchen. Indeed, if the program is successful, he said William Woods might soon look like the typical college of the 1950s, with a vibrant buzz on campus but not much connection with the larger world.

Still, he added, "that's a perfectly legitimate idea" and called the program "well worth watching"--or even emulating. "Any time students can be drawn away from the laboratory, the library and the lecture halls, and into larger arenas of learning, it's a richer experience for them," he explained.

William Woods, about 100 miles west of St. Louis in rural Fulton, prides itself on preparing students for careers with "profession-oriented" majors, such as sign language interpretation, mass communication and equestrian studies (which produces horse trainers and riding instructors). About half its 1,300 students live on campus; others take classes at satellite locations around the state.

William Woods' extracurricular program fits into a broader trend of colleges linking tuition breaks to student behavior in an effort to remake campus life. Abilene Christian University in Texas, for instance, cuts tuition for juniors and seniors who live on campus. Defiance College in Ohio offers a $7,000 credit to freshmen with track records of community service.

"Smaller, private institutions in particular have become quite entrepreneurial in how they implement these programs," said Tim McDonough of the American Council on Education.

Hoping to Attract Those Already Active

And although some parents of William Woods students initially will be saying, "Get out and go to that ballgame so we can save the $5,000," McDonough predicted that over time, the college should begin to attract students who are already interested in extracurricular activities. "That will make it a very lively and energetic learning environment."

Such, at least, is the idea. But even some of William Woods' biggest boosters concede that a hefty tuition break can only go so far.

"The same people are usually the leaders in every organization, and the rest of the campus is pretty apathetic," junior Erin Murphy said. "A lot of students would rather go to the movies or play video games. I guess it's just our generation."

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