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The fine University that employs me is recognized widely as a serious and top quality academic institution. It is also, perhaps undeservedly so, recognized as a place that many students wish to leave.

Our four year student retention rate, the share of entering freshmen that graduate 4 years later, is high by any objective standard, but on the low-side for schools in our quality-range. It hovers somewhere around 85%. Our typical freshmen class is about 1,100 students, which means that over the course of 4 years 935 “original” matriculants will graduate while 165 originals will not end up here. Some of them will transfer to better schools. Some of them will transfer to warmer schools (not necessarily mutually exclusive). And some of them will go to work or the military. We replace a decent fraction of these with transfers in any given year, but for a variety of reasons, universities such as ours “need” student retention rates to be as high as possible.

Why? Perhaps most important is reputation. A great school, it is thought, keeps its students. The school loves them and the kids love the school. Second, we tend to think that a larger pool of 4-year graduates breeds loyalty, which results in future financial contributions, good publicity, etc. inciting a virtuous circle for the school. Third (and I have not checked the methodology in a couple of years), retention rates likely play a role in the quality rankings of institutions in publications like the US News and World Report. Fourth, it is costly to attract, review, admit, and partially educate a student – and it is costly to replace them. I remember reading somewhere that the cost of securing each matriculated student at top tier colleges is well in excess of $10,000. There are other reasons I can conjure up, but I am not in the mood to put forth my super-cynical side today (hard to believe, I know).

Around here, we “try to do everything possible to raise our retention rates.” From the discussions, some might be led to believe that we would find 100% student retention rates to be desirable. But of course that would be silly. I don’t expect our university to say that publicly of course, but I sure hope that the decision-makers recognize it.

Why? I can think of two solid reasons.

  1. While attracting and admitting students is costly, so too is retaining students. We at the U of R (and this has to be left for another blog post) have an astonishing array of support staff and services already in place to help students through their college years, to identify problem students, to identify disaffected students, to identify learned disabled students or otherwise unprepared students. And we have an extensive network of professionals throughout various levels of the university to make sure kids have every opportunity to find satisfaction here and to flourish here academically. But those resources are valuable. And in my view – extremely valuable. What should we do to keep students here? Should we spend $15,000,000 to make sure that the last disaffected student stays here by buying him off to stay (gosh, please don’t get any ideas!). Of course not, because at some point, the marginal dollar we spent trying to keep him (and the marginal time from the college’s resource base) may be worth a lot more than the financial and reputational impact of the lost student. And without me going into detail on all the possible reasons students might want to transfer out of Rochester, not all of them have to do with the college itself. What if a student is homesick? What if they came here to play a sport and became injured? What if they just want to sit in the sun all day? Should Rochester start emitting exa-ton after exa-ton of CO2 to heat the planet up faster? Of course not. I openly wonder how often the “at what cost” question gets asked. I’ve not seen it uttered publicly.
  2. Focusing on the “college retention rate” is an awfully narrow (and “selfish”) way to look at the transfer/dropout problem. It is far from clear that “staying at U of R” is in a student’s best interest. In fact, it is no more obvious that a kid should stay here at all costs than people should remain in the same jobs, with the same boyfriend or girlfriend, live in the same house, etc. If we care about the students, and I hope that we do, should it not be our duty to make sure that they are put in the best possible position to succeed? If this means helping them find their way to a university that better matches their talents, interests, abilities and yes even their social interests, then shouldn’t we expend effort to make that happen? If this means helping them find a career choice prior to graduation, shouldn’t we expend effort to make that happen? It is the height of hubris to think that every kid needs to stay at U of R and that we are offering a kid is so vital that we ought to stand in the way of having them pursue other options. If the higher ed industry is even moderately competitive, and if reputation matters as much as people claim it does, then wouldn’t developing a reputation for putting the best interests of all students first go a long way? Wouldn’t it be “the right thing to do?” After all, I cannot tell you the cacophony of sounds on campus exhorting corporations and rich white dudes to “do the right thing” … it would seem odd if the university community placed itself above this. Despite my extreme gratitude to the U of R for putting me in the teaching role that I have now, my single most important focus is on giving the students who ask for it, the best opportunity they can get. I cannot tell you how many transfer recommendations I have written and phone calls I have made, particularly for our outstanding students. I had every reason to not do this – after all, they were model economics students, tuition paying students, and really good people – we’d be better off in the short-run had they stayed. But who am I to deprive a student her dream of studying at NYU, Northwestern, Yale or even Arizona State, Alabama or USC?

One Response to “Yes, Sometimes “Failure” is Certainly a Good Option”

  1. Rod says:

    When I went to college in the olden days, our dean of students gave all the freshmen the “One Man in Four” speech. “Look around you, to the left and right, to the front and back, and at yourself — one out of four of you will not graduate.”

    One of the basic principles my college followed was the “pressure cooker” method of weeding out the weak from the herd. We had a list of basic requirements, as did Amherst, that everyone had to pass: freshman English, mathematics, science, music/art, religion/philosophy, foreign language, European History and physical ed (which included a mile run in under seven minutes plus a number of other physical fitness tests, like the standing broad jump. Edward Albee did not sign the chapel/church pledge saying he had gone to nine services each semester. One of my friends attempted to study for his Math 101-102 tests after knocking down a double shot of Partner’s Choice (I was his tutor). The best way to pass the freshman writing test was to take no chances with complex sentence structure. None of these requirements were particularly difficult, but an eighth of the class, half of the one man in four, bit the dust with the basic requirements. Amherst in the olden days had a tougher math course to pass, and everyone had to take physics.

    Other members of my class just succumbed to the distractions of college life — road trips to Vassar in the middle of the week and other beer and women related distractions in particular. A few others were expelled or suspended for such things as having women stay in their rooms after midnight (now there are co-ed dorms!).

    Now that tuition is so expensive, colleges and universities have a greater duty to deliver the services they advertise in their catalogs and brochures. Who wants to waste a hundred grand just to get bounced out by some arbitrary physical ed requirement? About the only thing my college would kick a student out for is belonging to an all-heterosexual-male fraternity.

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