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The Retaining Challenge

13 Jul Posted by in Academics, Business | Comments Off on The Retaining Challenge

I have written and spoken before about the need for American universities, in a tough period, to recommit to maximum accessibility, given the demographic changes in our society, the growing economic inequality, and the obvious burdens of tuition costs. We need imaginative ways to reach out into the K-12 student population to maximize interest in and readiness for college, and we need college programs to match.

It’s clear that, within this larger issue, particular focus must go to retaining the students we do get — from all groups, but particularly from groups lower in the socioeconomic scale and with little or no familial experience with the college process.

American higher ed retention rates have been dismal for a long time. I remember as a kid wondering what happened to that vast number of students routinely flunked out from freshman courses at a major Midwestern university. Some faculty still believe they have a mission to weed out weaklings, and take some joy in the process. In recent years, awareness of new retention goals has improved, as a matter of university rankings and the fact that it’s cheaper to keep students than to recruit them, and hopefully with some awareness of human costs as well.

But the fact is, we still don’t do very well, and our national system is now 10th in the world in per capita degree production. What used to be a sloppy and painful system made whole by unusually high admission rates, has now broken down competitively. And students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds bear the cost.

Mason, as a university, happily has been doing some things right (relatively). Our retention and graduate rates from key minority groups are pretty good. We graduate as many Pell grant students, over six years, as we do students in general. Our overall rates have been improving.

But: we still don’t do as well as we should; AND we don’t always clearly know why we do as well as we do.

So I suggest, as a fundamental part of University goal setting, a renewed commitment to greater retention success and to greater understanding of how to keep the students we recruit. There’s no plea here to water down quality. We’re going to see a raft of proposals designed to increase degree rates at clear cost to educational substance. That’s not what we seek. But I do think we need a better grasp of why we have been doing a bit better and we need to accelerate that success. Of course we want to keep more honors students and more out-of-state students, and that can be part of the process. But we need a deeper commitment to students in general, and some special attention to types of students who, based on national data, may be particularly fragile.

This is, then, a call to the Mason community, for while faculty members are most clearly involved, a host of other units and certainly academic administrators at all levels must be part of the program. We’ll work for a clearer definition of the components involved during the coming year.

Mason has long taken pride as an accessible university, and we know we need extra work now simply to maintain this claim. But let’s add to the challenge, by working further to become a university where accessibility pays off — for everyone involved.