Corio said the program's value shows up in an analysis of how many students return to campus after their freshman year. For students who participate, the retention rate is about 87 percent, or 10 percentage points higher than the rate among non-participants, he said.
"We're seeing the impact on students," he said. "It makes a huge difference in having that community and sense of belonging to the institution."
In the last several years, Corio has noticed in the post-trip essays more references to life without cellphones. Like many schools, West Virginia doesn't allow cellphones or musical devices on the trips. Cut off from Facebook and text messages, students are reporting that they are making stronger and better friendships, he said.
Andrew Jillings, director of the 28-year-old outdoor orientation program at New York's Hamilton College, said he has faced a similar scenario. Students are no less physically fit than they were in the past, but there is a "separation issue" that comes with taking away the digital accessories.
"It's a bit of a shock for some students," he said. "I spend a lot of time with the leaders on how to get students to sit and literally look around at each other and have a conversation."
A main focus for Jillings has been hiring trip leaders who understand that their job is not to sprinkle a bit of orientation into a wilderness program but to give freshmen a solid introduction in a wilderness setting.
"I don't necessarily hire the most rugged, woodsy leaders," he said.
The programs generally charge students an extra fee, often about $50 per day, said Bell, who calculated the average charge in 2006 at $291. In the past, students at larger colleges applied for financial aid directly from the orientation program, but Bell said more schools are now providing financial support through their financial aid offices or are paying for the programs entirely.
Bell, who has studied the post-trip essays written by West Virginia students and others, said the mark of a successful program is an essay that goes beyond "it was fun" to "I changed as a person. I feel as close to these people as I do to my family."
"You'd think it would vary mainly by trip, but actually it seems to vary more by school, and I think it's varying by the curriculum they're using for these programs," he said.
Dartmouth senior Emily Unger, who directs the trips program, said the "extreme hiking" trip she went on as a freshman was the most fun she had ever had. But it wasn't the hiking that made it so great."The sense of community that gets built and the sense of welcoming from the upperclassmen just blew me away," she said. "I felt like I had been welcomed into a family and felt like I was in a new home."