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Students Who Don’t Make It

10 Nov Posted by in Academics | 3 comments

I’ve been interested in the issue of students who start college and don’t finish for a long time. I grew up as a faculty brat, and my father recurrently told me about students who started college, took the infamous Rhet 100 (I think that’s right), failed, and were bounced out — he claimed to the tune of over 25%. I wondered at the time about the human cost, about what happened to people who started college and didn’t complete. Some, of course, came back somewhere later; many doubtless did fine anyway; but the human cost nevertheless must have been considerable.

The problem haunts us still. While the numbers of Americans starting college have soared, a 50% noncompletion rate still preoccupies us. It’s now not just an issue of human costs, to the individuals who must feel some sense of failure, but global competitiveness. Because we don’t have a terrific system of precollege education, and because we don’t track students as most countries do, our failure rate is unusually high, and it now translates into a lower percentage of actual college graduates than many other countries have.

We’re all aware of the issue, if only because of the drumbeat of retention rate concerns that has sounded now for a couple of decades. Many of us work, at least occasionally, to try to make sure that students get warnings about academic performance, have available advising, and have access as needed to some tutorial help. But we clearly can and should be doing more, for example in providing better support to students, and instructors, in classes with high failure rates — not to soften standards, but to work for greater student success. It is no credit to any of us when students don’t make it. Obviously, we’re hardly in full control of the relevant environment, and economic factors loom large currently. But recognition of an academic challenge is crucial, and in a way most academics are not easily positioned to respond since (one assumes) most of us did pretty well in school. There are systems issues here, but issues of effective individual teaching as well.