Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Retention is a Real Slog

John Gardner
One of the absolutely worst Secretaries of Defense in US History has given us one thing to remember him positively for: reminding us of the word “slog”. His use of it so famously was in description of the Iraq war, a disaster which he had a great deal to do with designing. I am going to use the word to refer to the holy grail of undergraduate higher education in non elite colleges and universities: retention.
Achieving retention is a real slog. It is very, very difficult to do, short of going out and recruiting lots of “better” students which everyone else wants too. I have been helping colleges try to achieve this ephemeral goal for four decades now. I know.
This reflection is occasioned by my giving two talks the day of this writing, at a meeting of one of our six regional accreditors. And I had two rooms full of conscientious and worried higher educators under a lot of pressure from their campus leaders to improve retention. And I felt compelled to tell them that this is just very hard work and many of our approaches just aren’t going to work at all. I told them about my top four—that is strategies that do seem to “work” as demonstrated by externally validated evidence: first year seminars, learning communities, Supplemental Instruction, and Foundations of Excellence®. But even these take a true “slog” to make them work. I know. I lead one of these for 25 years (a first-year seminar); and I have been working another, Foundations of Excellence with 197 institutions since 2003.
Unfortunately, we higher educators are just like many other consumers. We work for people who want a quick fix, now, not a slog that will take years and years. We are looking for a panacea. A silver bullet. This makes us vulnerable.
And the good ol’ American free enterprise system is responding to our desperation. Even I who thinks he has seen everything by now in the way of the marriage of shameless commerce to the academy—what I refer to as the military-industrial-university complex, now find myself marveling at all the for-profit entities that huckster their wares promising to achieve retention for their clients. Just today I noted one of the largest college textbook publishers offering in an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education “student retention solutions”. As a textbook author myself, I would never made such claims. I know I couldn’t support them. Caveat emptor. Retention can only be achieved by a slog: yours, ours, and mine. I invite you to join me.

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