A couple of Columbia students enjoying the currently endangered biking program

A couple of Columbia students enjoying the currently endangered biking program

COÖP, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, is currently in danger – not from bears, mosquitoes, or climate change, but from the Columbia administration itself. One of our staff writers explains why the administration is considering cutting part of COÖP, and why that might be the wrong move.

As much as there is to love about being a student at Columbia, going to college in the city presents a unique set of challenges, especially for Columbia freshmen. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the fast pace of student life at Columbia and in New York as a first-year, and it’s not uncommon to have difficulty acclimating to the urban environment. For many incoming freshmen, the complete transition from suburbia to New York can be daunting process.

Back in 1984, a group of Columbia students recognized this issue with the transition to Columbia and banded together to try and ease the process for incoming freshmen by creating COÖP, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program. Although COÖP started out as just a hiking program (HOP), COÖP leaders started expanding the program in the early nineties to include the biking program (BOP), followed by the introduction of the river-canoeing program (ROP) in 1998. In that time, the purpose of COÖP has stayed the same, in that COÖP seeks to provide freshmen with the opportunity to build a community with each other before actually arriving to the city, thus easing the transition to Columbia.

Unfortunately, COÖP’s future at Columbia is largely uncertain, even despite the continued success it has had as pre-orientation program for over thirty years. Since the beginning of this term, Student Engagement has been in talks with COÖP leadership about cutting parts of the program (namely, the biking program) or reducing the size of the program as a whole, thus reducing the number of freshmen who could participate in COÖP. The advisors for the program have cited an increase in the number of requests for financial assistance as the primary reason for the potential cuts to COÖP, since the monetary cost associated with COÖP limits how accessible the programs is to students of certain socio-economic backgrounds. By reducing the number of students who can participate in the program, Student Engagement can reapportion the extra funds to provide scholarships and assistance, making the remaining programs more affordable.

Regarding Student Engagement’s concerns about accessibility, COÖP student-leaders Robert Holland and Jake Petterson agree that affordability is a completely valid concern, but both argue that “reducing the number of participants or eliminating BOP would be a mistake. COÖP should be available to as many students as possible, both in diversity and number, and we think that compromising one for the other isn’t the only solution.” COÖP leadership is hopeful about the possibility of finding a workable compromise that would allow more students to participate in the program, but according the Petterson and Holland, “it would be wrong to say that the situation is not serious.” The pressing concern for COÖP is time, according to the leadership, since “[COÖP] only has a year to come up with a solution and it’s difficult to cut costs on the program without compromising safety.”

The news that Student Engagement is looking at cutting parts of COÖP is surprising given that the majority of the Ivy League, as well as other elite universities, subsidize even larger pre-orientation programs that are still expanding. Cornell’s Odyssey pre-orientation program runs 30 trips for approximately 225 incoming students, and introduced its own biking trip and a rock-climbing trip in 2014. Harvard’s equivalent of COÖP, the First-Year Orientation Program, hosted 39 trips for 344 participants in 2015, and Yale’s Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips accommodated around 400 first-years this past year. Princeton, in a class of its own, had over 700 incoming students participate in the 2015 Outdoor Action Frosh Trips and is in the process of integrating the Outdoor Action program into its regular orientation program next year, making the ‘pre-orientation’ program accessible to every student. Additionally, Middlebury and Bowdoin are in the process of expanding their outdoor pre-orientation programs, despite facing similar issues with accessibility. As such, Columbia, as an institution, stands alone in attempting to reduce the size of its pre-orientation program.

As any student who took part in COÖP would be quick to tell you, the program is an integral part of the freshmen experience for its participants. COÖP provides incoming freshmen with the chance to connect with other students before the frantic friendship-forming of NSOP starts, giving COÖPers a shot at developing bonds with other students without the pressure that comes with trying to fit in during ‘real orientation.’ Where NSOP is designed with mandatory programming that focuses on how incoming students can fit in at Columbia, COÖP puts the focus on the incoming students and shows them how to thrive.

Corroborating this, academic research backs up the idea that COÖP helps freshmen achieve success into college. Dr. Brent Bell of the University of Hampshire conducted research on the benefits of outdoor orientation programs such as COÖP, and his findings indicated that students who participated in such programs exhibited statistically significant benefits, including higher retention rates, higher GPAs after one year, higher social adjustment scores, higher institutional attachment, and self-reported ‘better’ overall adjustment to college. Further studies from Bell have demonstrated “data analysis [that] showed overall positive significant gains for . . . participants on certain measures of developmental tasks (i.e., developing autonomy, developing purpose) and subtasks (i.e., emotional autonomy, instrumental autonomy, appropriate educational plans).”

COÖP is clearly a positive institution for freshmen in the Columbia community, and Holland and Petterson testify that “every indication makes it clear that first-years who participate in outdoor orientation programs benefit in ways that last throughout their collegiate careers,” going on to argue that “decreasing the number of incoming first-years that can receive these benefits would be damaging to future Columbia classes for years to come.” And, at the moment, Columbia is looking at a future that only offers this eviscerated version of COÖP. Student Engagement is still looking at cutting programs to reapportion the existing funds instead of increasing allocated funding, ignoring existing models of expansion at other universities and the variety of demonstrable benefits that COÖP offers to incoming freshmen.

Bikers bonding via the COÖP website