If it just were true that students come to college to learn. It would be pretty simple you keep them in college until they graduate. We would just keep pouring information and knowledge into their heads like they were bottomless intellectual buckets. And we would control; the knowledge spigots that would keep them coming back to us every class, every day to acquire more and more knowledge in an attempt to fill their limitless buckets. Their brains would be like thirsty knowledge sponges sucking up each and every drop of information that might cling to the lips of the professorial spouts.
But alas, we know this is not the case. The drops that too many try to lap up are from spilled shots or over-poured beers on weekends. The unquenchable thirst is too often one that leads them to be able to forget all they learned or should be learning during the week. Their demands are too often for another touchdown or basket rather than more homework and minutes of lecture. And the thirst to suck up is to get a better grade to import the GPA and perhaps get a better job, or one at all.
Learning? A given but not always actively requested. Here is an experiment to prove the point. The next time you complete a class, give students a choice. Let the students decide if they want to do homework or not. “Okay class you will say. “You can either read pages x through z and write a short essay discussing what you have learned from the reading. Or, you can skip the reading and writing and just do nothing for next class. Your choice. No penalty for either. In fact, to allow you full freedom, I will leave the room and you can vote. Just give me the results.”
Anyone wish to venture a hunch for what the results would likely be? Not if you have come into class late and heard all the grumbles as the five for an assistant prof, ten for an assoc prof or fifteen minutes for a full prof waiting time was drawing to a close.
We in higher education know this. We were not so different after all. Who among us did not celebrate when a paper was canceled, a quiz dropped, a text taken off the reading list? How many of us passed on the party, the kegger, a ski or road trip, get together, card game, shopping, movie, TV or whatever because there was an additional reading or problem that we could do just for the intellectual fun of it? Sure there were some and let’s be honest, we made fun or them or were the targets of derision from our student colleagues. And we were going to go into higher education. And some were even planning to be faculty!
What Keeps Students in School
Yet, when we look at retention and what we should focus on to keep students in school, we almost always tinker with the academic aspects of school. We really do believe that a good learning experience will be engaging. We somehow believe that if students are kept busy with learning and intellectual pursuits, that’ll do the retention trick.
We need to come to grips with the reality that students do not choose, do not come to and do not stay in a college too learn. Learning is a given. It is like breathing. The only time that we think about our breathing is if it is in short supply or could be taken away. If the level of learning is what we expected it would be when we decided to attend a college that will fulfill the desire to learn and expectations. This is true no matter if that be a name brand university like Harvard, Stamford, the University of Michigan, Berkley, MIT, Chicago, or a tier two or even three that we could get into, a community college we chose for its training program or a career college with an 18 month to an associate degree. If a student believes that the learning and training will get him or her to the ultimate goal, graduation and the job or graduate school that is learning enough.
Here is the hierarchy of student decision-making. It is what underlies a student’s choice to enroll, to attend and finally stay at a school.
Students want to feel as if they are progressing on the road to the goal. And yes, they will be willing toi learn on the way but as a method to progress to the goal; not as the goal itself. Yes, they want to be challenged but not overly so. Proof? Try explaining why two classes with a book and an essay a week are required in world literature. Want a real challenge? Try doing this with a class of physicists. Or let’s reverse it. Calc and trig for lit majors. Or any of it for phys ed majors or major sports athletes.
“It’s good for you!” It’ll make you better people. More active members of society and culture. If you’re ever driving in Indiana and go by a silo, you’ll be able to calculate how much corn it can hold…..”
Students will leave a college is they do not believe they are not learning, not getting what they need to obtain the goal – a job at the end. If the education is not equal to the promise, students will drop out because the cost of dollars and time will not be worth it. If students feel or learn that the education is not sufficient to get them to the job they seek after graduation, they will not stay and graduate.
So if the educational program is not up to basic expectations, then it is necessary to improve it. If the teaching and learning are weak, strengthen them. It professors cannot teach, teach them to teach. But if the program is good, is educationally and vocationally appropriate and solid and the faculty can get the information and training across to help student progress, strengthening learning will not necessarily increase retention among the current students. It may attract better students. They could have a higher retention rate since better students do tend to stay in college at a higher rate than weaker students if there is a match between learning/study demands, student ability and the expectations that had them choose the school to begin with.
Engaging is an Emotional Decision
If a college really wishes to maximize retention, it needs to look beyond the academic program to much more human issues, to the very issues that attracted students in the first place- to emotional and affective issues
In 1992, when the University of Cincinnati made it into the NCAA Final Four, UC President Joe Steger declared “As of today, we are a much better university. And we can cut our student recruitment budget.” Then he chuckled. He chuckled because he knew that not a thing had really changed within the University except that its basketball team was playing for the national title – in basketball. Not academics. What Joe Steger knew was that in the mind of current students UC was a much better school since the Bearcats were now in the top tier of March madness. He also knew that student morale would be at a peak all the rest of the year and into the next as UC rode a wave of sports success. He also knew that faculty would take greater pride in being at UC than before the NCAA run and that would feed into student morale.
Steger understood that students and others in an institution do not live on intellect alone, maybe not even all that much really. He knew that the engagement of student and school was more strongly formed by the simple fact that people are people after all. And people want to be part of something that makes them happy. Being in the Final Four made people, even non-sports-oriented people, happy and pleased to be engaged and even married to UC.
Becoming Engaged to the School
Engaged and married? To a school? Yes! That is what the most central, the most human return on investment are all about. Engagement and fulfillment. All three returns on investment that students (and their parents seek)
1. The financial return on investment
2. The emotional return on investment and
3. 3 the affective return on investment
All involve a sense of engagement. They are all akin to a couple getting engaged, living through a period of being affianced and finally tying the knot. Just as a couple depends on one another showing an equal amount of caring and learning to trust one another prior to the wedding, so a college and a student work through similar issues.
For a student, there is a courtship period with the school as he or she thinks about expending the emotion and trust to become engaged for a period running from two to six-plus years. This is the period we know as recruitment. The college takes the student out on a few “dates”, invites the potential student out to meet the “family” on the campus tour, exchanges a few billet douxs we know as marketing to entice the student to accept when the college asks the student to marry it with an offer of admission.
When the student says I will marry you it all seems to change quickly .Right up until the potential student accepts the proposal of the college, he or she is a sought after, well attended to intended. Then as soon as the I accept your proposal is made, it all changes. The suitor suddenly drops all the pretense and acts almost as if the newly engaged is no longer all that important. In an interesting twist to most engagements, the suitor does not buy the ring for the intended. The newly engaged (or his or her parents) must buy the ring. At best, the suitor offers the intended a scholarship toward the ring we know as tuition and fees. This should be a bit of as hint of what is to come over the next number of years. And is just where most suitor schools start to lose their engagement with their students.
In a bold show of who will be in charge in this relationship, the suitor turns assertive and tells the betrothed what to do, what courses to wear, how to do things and insists that he or she follows the program the suitor will lay out. The college may even tell the betrothed where he or she will live, with whom, and then when and where they will eat. They will be told what to read; what to think and if they want to go out on a date say to a football game or a concert at the school, they will have to buy their own tickets.
The suitor will also tell the betrothed student when to show up for the wedding, what to wear, who will perform the ceremony, who will be the best man, give the toast and precisely how many people he or she can invite. And, of yes, there is an extra charge quite often for the wedding ceremony itself. But that6's all okay. When you're young, engaged and in love, it is all great.
It looks something like this.
You and Three Guests are Invited
As with any engagement, the process leads to the wedding. This is the ceremony when the two partners to the engagement are forever joined in history. The wedding in the collegial process is graduation. That is where the betrothed will take the suitors’ name for that day forward. That is when the betrothed becomes forever known as “graduate of….” .
The suitor will also tell the betrothed student when to show up for the wedding, what to wear, who will perform the ceremony, who will be the best man, give the toast and precisely how many people he or she can invite. And, of yes, there is an extra charge quite often for the wedding ceremony itself.
But as with many weddings, after the ceremony things change again. As soon as the President intones the traditional vow of “with the power vested in my by the Board of Trustees , I know pronounce you graduate and alumnus. Please feel free to donate to the bride….” The situation reverts to the college pursuing the graduate as it once did the potential enrollment.
Faith, Hope and Did You Prove You Love Me?
And what will control the relationship of donation requestor and potential donor? The same investment of faith and trust in the school that yielded the initial engagement. Am I getting back at least as much as I am putting into this relationship? Is my trust and faith being returned in full? Am I getting an emotionally fulfilling experience back from the college? The only thing that differs here is verb tense.
Will I get as much back as I will put in? Will my needs be met?
Does the school care about me as much as I do about it? Are my needs being met?
Did the college give me all I expected it to provide? Were my needs met.
And those needs? Not intellectual ones.
No the real ones. The emotional and affective needs. The human ones that make me feel cared for. That make me feel important and validated. That tell me you respect and care about my well being. The ones that make me want to have my name associated with your forever.
The academic program and its rigor are just ways of showing that a school cares. Being expanded intellectually is but one example of showing a school is concerned with a student’s well being.
And other ways?
How Do I Love Thee?
Here are but a few
· Actually providing the courses and sections a student needs to advance.
· Not dropping a section in the last week before classes start
· Making sure that advisors really know what they are doing so students have a shot at getting out on time.
· Always having time for a student.
· Offering assistance when needed.
· Providing a safe environment that says we respect students and wish to have the campus reflect the value we put in you.
· Making sure that every office on campus and every member of the community gives students the care and service that says we do give a damn about you as a person.
· Checking that every service on campus is actually available as promised.
· Treating students like valuable, important members of the college community.
· Investing in not divesting of those services that put students and their needs first.
· Being sure that we do not give students any reason to lose faith and trust in the promises we gave when we asked them to become engaged to us in the first place.
· Staying in touch about more than just exam schedules and when bills must be paid.
· Seeing to your needs not just as a bucket to pour information into but as a full person with valid emotional and affective expectations and requirements.
· Reaching out to students by doing simple things like smiling and saying hello to them.
And doing hard things like
- Not just saying you are doing something by publishing a brochure and calling that action.
- Actually doing what you say you will.
- Keeping promises made to entice students to the school.
- And making sure that everyone in a classroom can teach, everyone in an office can perform and every member of the college community will be as enthusiastic about a successful student as a winning basketball team.