Thursday, April 05, 2007

Taxonomical Issue 3 Can I Graduate? and What You Can do to Make the Answer YES

When a student finds resolution or answers to the first two questions in the taxonomy, he or she then has to face certain realities. Now is when taxonomy question 3 comes into play. “Can I graduate?”

During the can I get in and pay for it levels, there is an undying optimism. “Sure I can do okay here. I’ll just study harder and apply myself. This is college and I will buckle down and get to work.” Phrases well learned after being used after every high school break, midterms, finals, grades, and even a few botched tests. But the results are quite often the same as New Year’s resolutions – unused exercise equipment and unread text books.

Consider that most students have been told that “You won’t be able to get away with that in college.” Even if that is not necessarily true. You can often get away with much more. For example, attendance. Do you REQUIRE attendance? Likely not, so it is much easier for students to skip class and get on the road to failure. (In fact, not having an attendance policy is surely very poor customer service to students and faculty. But more on this later because it really is a big service issue.)

Students know their own adequacies and inadequacies. They know if they may have trouble. And since the goal of attending college is to graduate and get that certification, that ticket to a career, that degree, they will focus on whether or not they can make it. They will ask themselves “Can I graduate?” regularly.

They care about graduating. Just look at the joy on graduation day and all the folks they want to invite to see them walk across the stage and get that empty folder (Your degree will be mailed to you). That day is what most every other day is about for them. And if they ever get the feeling they may not be able to graduate from your school, they will leave it to find another they can graduate from.

You may not realize that because most schools don’t really focus on graduation. They, we, focus on enrolling them in the first place. What happens after that. Well that is up to the student. Sink or swim approach. You’re in college now. Schools spend so much time and money recruiting yet retention is not a big enough issue on most campuses.

I’ll bet your school is like that new pair of jeans or shoes you bought. You spent a long time searching for the right ones, tried it on, checked it out in the mirror, maybe even asked a fiend to add an opinion. Now that you got it home and worn the jeans or shoes, they have lost their importance. Shoes have gone unshined and the jeans washed whenever and folded up into a draw with others and you are now thinking about something new to go and seek out. The new almost always outweighs the interest in what we’ve got. That applies to the jeans, the shoes and surely to students at our schools.

Do you even have a director of retention whose job is to be responsible for retaining each and every student? If you have anything close to this, does he or she have a staff anywhere as large as the admissions staff? Your answers will quickly tell you if there is a commitment to retention or admissions.

Learn and Earn or Churn and Burn?

For most schools, life is a treadmill. Just keep running and lose calories? Not quite. More of churn admissions and burn enrollments. That’s our basic M.O. And it is a losing one too. Loss of students does equal loss of revenue, loss of morale, loss of integrity and loss of the chance to actually meet that mission statement so prominent in catalogues but not many other places I fear. Churn and burn is a loss not just for students but for schools. (If you’d like a copy of the article from University Business “Learn and Earn, not Churn and Burn”, just let me know at

And graduation? Just a day to have a small committee arrange, get a speaker, pull out the academic robes and see if anyone else from the school shows up unless they have to.

But just because we don’t care all that much, does not take the concern away from students. This is especially true of neo-traditional students. Those students who used to e called non-traditional (adults, single parents, minorities, lower socio-economic students…) but have become sought after admits for schools to make their admission quotas. The neo-traditionals know that their cohorts graduate at much lower rates than the traditionals who came from better schools, families with an educational focus and money to at least obtain loans and be able to pay them off.

The March 23 Chronicle of Higher Education article "The Graduation Gap" states that

..students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to graduate from college than their wealthier peers. For college students from families with annual incomes of $25,000 or less, slightly one in four earns a bachelor’s degrees within six years…For students from families with annual incomes of $70,000 or more, that figure is 57% percent.

One in four. Wonder if students in the lower-income cohorts are concerned about their own chance to be in that 25%? You bet they are.

And the 57% from better economic backgrounds? Wonder if they…. Hey wait a minute! Only 57%. That means 43% of all students who start higher education do not get a degree? Do not graduate in six years? Sure some take longer but this means that a huge number of students just do not graduate. THEY DO NOT GRADUATE! NOT FROM YOUR SCHOOL? NOT FROM ANY SCHOOL?????

With those numbers in mind, do you start to see why question 3 is “Can I graduate?” And if the answer is “No” or Maybe not” can you also see that since graduation and the degree is why people attend and pay for college, students will quit or at least transfer to another school where they feel they may have a better chance to graduate?

If students do not believe you will help them answer their taxonomic question 3, you will lose them. Sink or swim is not a good retention or customer service position. Think and help them swim is a much better way to go for you and for them.

Focus on helping them succeed.

Not just in remedial courses freshman year but with help, assistance and attention to needs every year, every week and every day. They ask the question over and over again. Some every week, every day. Be there to help answer the question with assistance, with tutoring services that are important enough to make sure tutors know enough to really tutor. Students might be nice in class, but that does not necessarily make them good tutors.

I have a bet for anyone reading this. You name the stake. Here is the bet. I wager your school does not care enough about students graduating to either have enough tutors or to ever train them in how to tutor, to teach. If you do, let me hear about it. Consider also that most schools use "peer tutors" - a euphemism that means we use the cheapest labor we can find even if they may not know all that much more than the people they try to help. Peer tutors are other students, often from the same class! They may be bright enough in class but not smart enough to e able to find ways to explain and help the student in need. I mean let's face it, we have enough people with Ph D's in front of classes who do not know how to teach and they do have more education. Plus they have experienced more teaching so perhaps by some form of amoeba-like osmosis they picked up some techniques. But, why believe an under-educated peer/student with no teaching ability can do the trick for the weakest students. If tutoring is supposed to help retain students by supplying help to make them believe they can succeed, at least train the tutors. Give the students and the tutors a chance to be successful. Correspondingly, get some classroom professionals to do the tutoring and drop the peer idea. A rather small investment in professional tutors can reap very large revenue savings. One tutor at say $30,000 plus benefits who helps keep 20 students in school at 20 X tuition... You do the math.

Another Starting Place

Okay, so now where to start. Here it is. Give enough of a damn to require students actually attend all their classes. Make attendance obligatory. Make learning required. Drop the “right to fail” approach and replace it with a demand to succeed. And don’t wait until they are in “academic difficulty”. Waiting until they are in grade trouble is like watching a person who can’t swim go down three times and then trying to help when a good swimming lesson could have saved everyone some trouble.

Make students believe they can graduate and you will be there to help before the question becomes so prominent that the only true answer is “Don’t know.” If you wait, they will answer it for themselves, or you will and you will lose a student, they a chance at their dreams. And all of us the opportunity for our society to get stronger and better.

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