College Retention: A Moral Obligation

Simon Newman  •  President, Mount St. Marys

College is part of the classic American dream: shining student centers, high-tech labs, fun clubs and exciting athletic events welcome students ready to take that next step into their future.

But all too often, these students on the path to academic success aren’t getting the coveted degree that they or their families have paid tens of thousands of dollars for.

There will be no cap and gown, no matted degree hung on the wall and, likely, no meaningful job prospects to propel them into the middle class.

Just 59 percent of college students who begin an undergraduate program at a 4-year institution will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The cost of dropping out is steep: young adults entering the workforce with a bachelor’s degree earn 62 percent more than their peers with only a high school diploma.

To improve the odds of graduation, colleges and universities have stepped up their support with increased access to mentoring, financial planning, mental health services and quality of life amenities. It’s not uncommon to see students rolling around on the quad with puppies during finals week – the four-legged, school-sanctioned stress relievers are supplied by many institutions.

Despite all the gestures to keep students engaged and enrolled in college, it’s still not working for 41 percent of would-be graduates. According to U.S. News and World Report, as many as one in three first-year students will leave before their sophomore year.

Rather than continuing to collect exorbitant sums of money from the families of continually failing students, the kindest, most responsible option for institutions may be to return students their paid-in tuition and offer guidance for other paths. These paths could include other universities or technical schooling.

Are we giving up on these students? No, but we, as educators, are in the business of creating successes, and part of that success is dependent on whether a student graduates. But we also have ethical obligations as leaders and advocates of higher education.

Consider that the average cost of tuition plus room and board at a 4-year private institution is $43,921, or $175,684 over the course of four years.

It’s a staggering cost, but especially so for the families of students who won’t make it across the finish line. And more than 20 percent of first-year students who drop out still owe student loans on their failed education, further plunging them into economic hardship.

Identifying these students, admitting they are not going to thrive and refunding their tuition is a moral imperative for every institution in the U.S.

Many students aren’t always willing to raise their hand and say, "I need help." So it is our obligation to identify warning signs that can appear as early as a student’s first semester that the academics and college life is not the right fit.

An ongoing grade point average below 2.0, failure to turn in assignments, not attending class or not logging into student portals are some indicators that a student may not make it through their degree program. And there are social indicators as well – failure to join clubs or activities and complaining about finances or stress.

These indicators help universities identify students who may be struggling academically but also have the drive to graduate vs. those students who just don’t want to be at the university.

Getting out in front of the retention problems should be a priority for universities. Several institutions are already experimenting with alternate and more aggressive admissions criteria to select incoming students that are most likely to graduate.

Some look to the "grit factors" identified by University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Lee Duckworth, or other qualities to help predict success.

Temple University announced in 2014, that its admissions office would further emphasize looking at the whole student, not just their SAT scores, when deciding which students had the best chance at a successful education.

The school calls it the "Temple Option," and allows students who apply to answer four questions, self-reflective essays to show off traits such as self-confidence and determination, rather than submit the traditional SAT scores as proof they can hack it.

Temple has submitted that these factors, combined with a student’s high school GPA and class rank, are a much more reliable predictor of whether or not a student will succeed at the university than a one-time standardized test score.

William Black, senior vice provost of enrollment management at Temple, told Philadelphia Magazine that this first-of-its-kind admissions pathway will help the university promote success in these students once they are on campus.

That type of nurturing is a responsibility universities have to their students.

For those identified as "at risk," a caring and immediate intervention by faculty, staff and the administration should be the first line of defense, whether it be mentoring, counseling, learning services or even just encouragement to be more involved in student life.

But if a thorough intervention to get a faltering student back on track fails because the student is not responding and really just does not want to be at the institution, yet the university continues to collect thousands in tuition, the university’s lesson becomes about money, not education. We owe our students more.

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