Monday, October 11, 2004

Retention, Part 73

As a public institution, much of our budget depends either directly (tuition) or indirectly (state aid) on enrollment. When enrollment goes up faster than inflation, we have more resources; when enrollment is flat or down, we have less.

Enrollment is pretty much a function of two things: admissions (new students) and retention (keeping current students around until they graduate). Dropouts are a real problem, ethically, financially, and educationally. Like most community colleges, we have a high dropout rate. Some of that is simply the nature of the beast; I’m not bothered by students who attend four-year schools out of state who come home for the summer and take a course or two here to get a jump on their B.A., or ‘non-matriculated’ students (those who aren’t pursuing a degree) who just take a course or two out of pure interest. They count as ‘attrition’ when they leave, but they always intended to leave, so I don’t see that as failure.

Some students take a year here, then transfer to a four-year school for their sophomore year, rather than finishing the associate’s first. It’s irksome, but I can’t really blame them; if they just wanted to compensate for a sketchy high school record, and they really wanted to be elsewhere, that’s just the way the cookie bounces.

Still, a major chunk of attrition is students who wanted to stick around, but couldn’t. Some of them just don’t have the academic wherewithal for college work. Again, these don’t bother me much as a dean (though they’re incredibly irksome as a teacher), because they didn’t really belong here in the first place. The troubling ones are the ones who leave for financial reasons, or personal reasons, or because they just never connected emotionally with either the institution or the goal of graduation.

Some of those personal reasons are beyond anything we can influence: drug or alcohol issues, family crises (you wouldn’t believe some of the family crises!), mental illness, etc. As an open-admission institution, we take all comers, including those with high-drama personal lives. Financial issues are tricky. I used to have a student worker in my office (she graduated) who was constantly struggling to make ends meet; I was sympathetic, until the day she complained that she didn’t have money for lunch because the tanning salon raised its rates again. The tanning salon!

You can lead a horse to water…

From what studies have shown, students who get involved in campus organizations (whether teams, or clubs, or the radio station, or whatever) stick around at much higher rates than those who don’t. I don’t know to what degree this reflects self-selection, but it at least suggests an institutional strategy to improve graduation rates. At a commuter school with students who have jobs, though, there are natural logistical limits to how much club activity there will be. If we had dorms, it would be a different ballgame, but we don’t, and we won’t.

The upshot of all this is that retention is devilishly hard to influence in a sustainable way. So much of it has to do with the ambitions the students brought with them, the level of academic preparedness they bring with them from high school (again, you wouldn’t believe…), their family circumstances, and so on. We can try to minimize some of the bureaucratic inconveniences students face, and we can sponsor clubs and organizations, but most of the low-hanging fruit has long since been picked.

Republicans in Congress have recently sponsored several bills to rank colleges based on their graduation rates. I don’t know where they went to school, but nobody who has ever seen an open-admissions institution would ever make that mistake. If we wanted to increase our graduation rates, the first thing we could do is to ban part-time students. That would eliminate the drop-ins who just take a course or two over the summer. We could also become much more selective; if we screen out the low-achieving students at the door, imagine what it would do for our graduation rates! These moves would completely eviscerate our mission and our usefulness to the community, of course, which means that raw graduation is a rotten metric, but Republicans will be Republicans.

On campus, we’ve been debating the merits of requiring a study skills class for students who show need for remediation in both English and math. It looks good on paper – if they students are ‘double developmental,’ it’s a pretty safe bet that they aren’t very good at studying – but it’s remarkably hard to sell to students. They don’t want to take anything that “doesn’t count,” and they’re often remarkably focused on getting out as quickly as humanly possible. You’d think that a ‘double developmental’ student would welcome the opportunity to improve her study skills, and a few do, but some odd combination of pride, overestimation of ability, and short-term cost considerations leads most to get very snarly about it.

We’ve also started a program in which faculty reach out personally to ‘double developmental’ students during their first semester, to try to establish some sort of connection. Anecdotally, these students don’t return calls.

I think the root of the problem is the loss of decent jobs that don’t require a college degree. Not all that long ago, a kid who just wasn’t the college type had plenty of other options that could lead to a decent life. That’s not as true as it used to be, and the ubiquity of college-degreed folk out there has ratcheted-up hiring requirements even in jobs where it’s not clear that a degree should be relevant, so now the kid who hated every minute of high school comes here (or is dragged, via his nose ring, by his parents) by default, and performs accordingly. Factories aren’t hiring, retail pays squat, and joining the military isn’t as safe as it used to be (again, Republicans will be Republicans).

Making college as ubiquitous as high school runs the risk of turning college into high school. I’m all for second chances – educators, as a species, usually are – but the kid has to want the second chance. Some do, and they make good on it, and those students are why we’re here. I’m just tired of being punished for the rest.