I am so tired of hearing “…55 percent who started (college) were gone the following year.” The college referred to is Texas A&M-Texarkana but could be any one of the thousand of non-elite colleges and universities in America. I am also sick of hearing about strong recruiting efforts but weak retention efforts. Recruiting, on one hand, generates revenue and it is apparently a bit easier than retention, which takes the kind of effort few institutions are willing – or able – to muster.
Since it’s not in cricket to complain absent a solution, I’m going to suggest a solution or two in honor of my cricket-playing buddy now traveling the world, Kurt the Canadian.
If one of the big worries in higher education is the loss of a large percentage of college freshmen before they start their second year, and it apparently is, I suggest everyone involved look at this for what it is. It’s a naturally recurring event, folks. Lots of first-year students leave college after experiencing – and paying for – something that for whatever reason is not right for them.
When I come across situations like this I am reminded of the dilemma McDonald’s franchisees faced once they opened their new restaurants. These franchisees, most of whom were responsible businesspeople, were appalled at the turnover they experienced with their young help. They tried hiring smarter, whatever that means, but that didn’t solve the problem. Eventually, the headquarters field managers convinced the franchisees that turnover was always was going to be part of an operator’s challenge. Accept that as a fact and deal with it, the managers said. The fact that lots of first-year college students do not become second-year college students is a fact of life; accept it and deal with it.
I know you’re thinking, Thanks, Joe, but my institution is not ready to accept that as we want students to continue with their education – that’s why we’re here at good old EDU. Let me point out that Texas A&M-Texarkana’s 55 percent loss increased from 44 percent two years prior. The trend, I suspect, is real. Reject this reality at your peril, or maybe just stick your head in the sand.
But I think these dropouts, who collectively are an annual experience that will not go away, can be helped and at the same time be of help to the institution itself. Here’s what I would do if all it took was a magic wand and the word Shazaam to make things better for everybody involved. I would create an environment that, first, acknowledged college isn’t for everyone, and second, that there are alternatives to a college degree. I would present those alternatives, including career-oriented certificate programs, in a non-judgmental manner. In other words, allow that it is okay if you feel your choice to enroll in college might have been premature or even a mistake. I would arrange articulation agreements with community colleges with career-oriented programs. I would invite outside career advisors to speak to the group who might be wavering in the commitment to a college degree. In doing so, I would expect two things to happen. One would be a great public relations coup, especially when testimonials come in from individuals helped by this unique approach. The second positive result, I would expect, would be some actual guidance and help for those students who will inevitably choose to drop out.
Of course, I do not expect even one college or university to adopt this approach. I just hope that my somewhat unique observations and unusual suggestions will spark other, better ideas. But whatever the reaction, I advise those of you in higher-ed decision-making positions to accept the reality of annual shrinkage between freshman and sophomore classes. It is inevitable.