Check out recent Noel-Levitz blog entries and you’ll see my colleagues Jim Hundrieser and Tim Culver both making strong cases for data-informed practices to boost retention and graduation rates by targeting diverse student populations. Tim applauded the University of Texas for its plan to boost graduation rates by 20 percent. For argument’s sake, I want to step off the bandwagon for a moment and make a case for encouraging campuses to stop focusing so much on retention and graduation and to look for the positive side of student attrition. Bear with me for a few more sentences.
One reason community colleges in particular struggle with graduation rates is because so many students in associate’s degree programs transfer to a four-year school before completing the associate’s degree; they then become attrition statistics. This is no doubt why the U.S. Education Department announced plans to broaden its definition of “student success.” It reflects a more accurate, more realistic view of student “attrition.” Students at all institution types identify new major or career paths that are not supported by their first college, and off they go. Some students arrive at college unprepared, or at the wrong time in their lives. The first group is often better served by stepping back and working on skill development, sometimes at their first school, but sometimes at another. The second group may better spend their time focusing on work or family and giving school a try at a later life stage. All of these students leave for good reasons, but their departures count against a school’s retention rate, and if they don’t come back, their leaving will count against graduation rates, too. When students leave for reasons that make sense in their own lives, it should be good for the school too.