Quick background: The college president, Simon Newman (not an academic, formerly a private-equity CEO), proposed to address its high rate of freshman attrition by using a survey to identify and remove freshmen "likely to fail" within the first three weeks. It just so happens that this would take place prior to the September deadline for reporting freshman numbers to the feds, which would "improve" the school's retention rate on paper since four years from now, those students would have left early enough not to be counted. Furthermore, the survey would take place under deceptive circumstances: students would falsely be told "there are no wrong answers" and that there are no dire consequences for being honest, when in fact certain kinds of answers could flag a student for dismissal.
As if all that weren't ethically questionable enough: when some faculty members objected, Newman responded by saying, "This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads" (see link).
Outrage mounted--as well it should when a university president uses a metaphor of murdering students. Then, when some faculty members and the provost objected to Newman's ethically questionable approach and homicidal mixed metaphor, they were fired for "disloyalty," despite having tenure. (The fired faculty were soon reinstated, say updated news reports, though the board still "supports" the president.)
This situation is wrong on so many levels that I find myself briefly identifying with T.S. Eliot's poetic creation J. Alfred Prufrock: "And how should I begin?" How indeed?
In comment streams, roughly 90% expressed outrage, on various grounds: These punitive actions against faculty are a violation of academic freedom; this approach is not only mean-spirited, it is deceptive; such actions and statements are especially hypocritical in a Catholic university; education is not "business," and should not be under the auspices of corporate CEOs with a purely managerial mindset. I agree 100% with all of those critiques.
Yet here I would like to address two issues that arise less frequently: the faulty assumptions underlying much discussion surrounding freshman retention, and the fact that the proposed surveys appear to be geared toward winnowing out students struggling with mental health issues.
Accreditation bodies, along with college rankings such as that of U.S. News and World Report, often consider "percentage of students who graduate within four years" as a key indicator of college "success." Students can become negative data points in two ways: by taking "too long" to finish their degrees, or by failing to finish altogether, whether by transferring elsewhere or dropping out completely. When comparing relative institutional quality, failing to retain freshmen is a big, bad no-no, as is failing to "push them through" in a "timely manner."
In most respects I agree. If students are leaving a particular college in droves during the first year, this doesn't bode well, and institutions surely should identify and address legitimate problems. We hope students will come back. That's always at the forefront of my mind, whether I'm teaching or making administrative decisions: We don't want to drive students away unnecessarily. Furthermore, when we make scheduling and resource allocation decisions, we must keep graduation requirements at the forefront so we don't do things like fail to offer courses necessary for graduation, and in the proper sequence. Attention to these matters is absolutely necessary, no question about it.
But why students choose to stay, or go elsewhere, is complex. Sometimes it really is an indicator that the college is screwing up--but not always. I transferred twice as an undergraduate, and each time it was because of life circumstances rather than anything to do with the college. Through the years I've talked to other transfer students, and usually the decision to transfer stemmed primarily from personal situations.
"Anecdotal evidence," you may say here, and that's part of my point: We need to move beyond anecdote and collect data not just on how many students leave, but on why they leave. Technology today allows us to collect and store qualitative comments--not just numerical percentages. If we're going to unravel the freshman retention puzzle, numbers alone are meaningless--unless those numbers are attached to stories, with those stories considered within a larger context in order to discern patterns. Yes, that's harder to do. But it's also necessary, and technology makes it entirely do-able.
When students leave, let's begin by asking them what happened. Let's record responses in as much detail as possible, code those responses, and break them down ("disaggregate the data"--see, I'm learning to speak admin-lingo) so that we know not only how many students have left, but how many of those departures were due specifically to institutional shortcomings. Where we do identify such patterns, let's listen to those concerns in a non-defensive way and take concrete steps to address them. (Too often I've witnessed situations where, when students elucidated valid concerns, those issues were brushed aside--even as the college continued to press forth with its ostensible "freshman retention initiatives." Sometimes institutions will do everything but actually listen and respond to the students they say they're trying to retain.)
It's the same when it comes to finishing in four years: Though taking longer is sometimes due to problems with the college, that's not always so. For one thing, the number of students who finish in four years may reflect little more than the number of students at that college who enjoy relative economic privilege. Given the well-documented spike in tuition as well as the erosion of the middle class, large numbers of students now have to work while they are in college (as I did). Working students who actually care about the quality of their education may simply need to proceed more slowly if they're going to graduate with a GPA--and a grasp of course material--that does them some good.
(I once attended a workshop on retention where an "expert" presented the stunning finding that students who reside on campus and don't work are more likely to finish in four years. Talk about faulty cause and effect; it's those who face fewer socio-economic barriers to begin with who can enjoy the luxury of living on campus without taking a job. That's a bit like saying studies show people who eat at the most expensive restaurants go on to earn the most money. Fact is, they already had the money in the first place.)
And if someone takes a bit longer, frankly, is that the end of the world? When students who face challenges persevere through adverse circumstances and still manage to finish college, shouldn't we be applauding their success rather than seeing them as "failures"--black marks against the college--because they didn't move through quickly enough? Again, when students take longer than the four years allotted to them by our society's socially constructed conveyor-belt mentality, why don't we ask them what happened, and collect and respond to qualitative data in a meaningful way--rather than presuming that either the students or the institutions are "losers" because they failed to meet a time constraint that was artificial to begin with.
My own father, a man of working-class origins, was an immigrant who came to the U.S. to work in avionics, after earning an engineering degree that took him seven years because he had to work full-time while studying. The oldest of eight children, he'd assumed full responsibility for the family when their father died suddenly when he was still a teenager. Silly me: I'd always thought my father's story was inspiring, and that his perseverance in the face of long odds made him an outstanding role model. Now I realize that had his college been ranked on its ability to "produce graduates" in the allotted time (three years, in the country where he was educated), he would have been a bad data point--an indication of institutional failure.
Sometimes students take longer to finish because they had to re-take courses they failed. Yet when students fail courses, it is usually because they have made poor choices all along. Through the years I've noticed this little pattern: students who fail to attend classes, fail to do assignments, fail to do the course reading, fail to take notes, and fail to seek assistance when they're struggling ... fail the course. Surprise, surprise? Certainly there are sometimes extenuating factors, such as family crises or serious illnesses. However, in many instances the primary "factors" are effort and commitment. In such cases, students should fail, and "pushing them through" is precisely what the college should not be doing.
It's a funny conundrum: one the one hand, many employers bemoan the fact that too many college graduates are unprepared for the work force, while on the other hand, colleges are pressured to "push them through." Yet "pushing through" students who apparently lack the necessary work ethic--and, as a result, fail to master course material--is exactly what will produce more unprepared workers. Ultimately, students need to be the ones responsible for their own learning, and those who don't take that responsibility are the last ones we should be "pushing through." Natural consequences, anyone?
I hope this doesn't put me in company with the 10% of comment stream contributors who thought President Newman was on to something. A few people actually commended Newman for "getting tough" and "refusing to coddle" the "lazy students" who feel "entitled" (presumably because of too many participation trophies, an error in logic that I've addressed at length elsewhere in this blog). To some extent I agree: colleges shouldn't coddle students, and we should be tough on those who don't do the work (or who cheat--a whole other issue that I won't get into here).
What these commenters apparently fail to realize is that Newman wasn't proposing to "get tough" on students who don't do the work. Newman's proposal didn't respond to actual student performance but instead would use a questionable survey, presented to students under deceptive pretenses (and probably in violation of informed consent laws), to identify students who might prove problematic, according to some imaginary metric.
And--as reported in the article linked above--much of that metric seems to rest on issues of student mental health. Questions included whether the students frequently "felt depressed," "couldn't shake the blues," or felt that "nobody liked them." This implies that the stance toward students facing emotional challenges is simply to "drown" them--as if today's epidemic of mental health issues is something we can simply sweep aside, a problem we can solve by sending suffering people elsewhere.
A better solution is for institutions to help those students it identifies as struggling with such issues. and, while I acknowledged above that some students fail courses due primarily to lack of effort, we must remember that sometimes the root cause of student struggle is adverse life circumstances. In those cases, counseling and support services are far more effective--and morally supportable--than bunny-drowning. (As someone who lost both of my parents while I was earning my own college degrees, I can testify to the efficacy of on-campus counseling in helping students cope when life offers its worst.)
As most of us who teach at any level can probably attest, mental health issues are epidemic today, in all generations. And that to me is a sign of a deeper systemic problem. If all the apple trees are dying, a competent orchardist doesn't assume he has a crop of flawed trees. Instead he looks for the problem in the environment--perhaps a nutritional deficiency in the soil, or poor weather conditions, or pestilence. Humans are likewise organic beings (however much we sometimes pretend otherwise), and as such, we also thrive, or wither, within the context of an ecosystem.
The high prevalence of mental health distress we're experiencing now points toward a widespread problem in our human ecosystem. I would submit that the core of that problem lies in dehumanization. Could the reason so many people are struggling emotionally nowadays be related to the fact that our society conceptualizes people as something other than human?--as "data points" (or "consumers" or "human resources" or other disembodied entities), or as obstacles to be removed along our own path to success, or as evil "others" whom we must defeat in order to secure our own moral supremacy?
Or as "bunnies" that must be drowned, in order to improve our "freshman retention numbers" and rankings?