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Student Attrition

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America’s declining college graduation rates have been the subject of many a political speech or hearing lately.  President Obama set a long term goal for his administration to restore America’s prominence in the percentage of its citizens with college degrees.  When you examine the research literature regarding student attrition, persistence, or graduation rates, there are thousands of publications and numerous dissertations written about some aspect of those topics.

John Thelin is a research professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the College of Education at the University of Kentucky.  He also authored A History of American Higher Education.  The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently sponsored a working paper (#2010-01) authored by Thelin entitled The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education:  Connecting Past and Present.  Thelin’s research documents that attrition in higher education has been a problem since the early 1900’s, but that it has only been the focus of research, discussion, and improvement efforts for the past 30 years.  He cites several recent publications, AEI publication Diplomas and Dropouts:  Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t) and a publication of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College and America’s Public Universities, which both deliver distressing news about college graduation rates.  The first publication indicates that graduation rates are not entirely a function of the selectivity of admissions by the school and the type of institution.  The second publication focuses on the 20-year decline in state university graduation rates noting that few state universities graduate more than 65 percent of their students in six years.

Thelin states that the result of generally bad news in education is to either “discredit the data or kill the messenger.”  His essay is intended to place current graduation rates in an historical context in order to facilitate a more measured discussion of the topic.  I suggest that anyone interested in the topic of retention spend a few minutes reading this 21 page essay as it provides a balanced and illuminating historical perspective of the issue.  Thelin’s recommendation is thoughtful as well.  He suggests that the statistical results as portrayed in the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and other databases do not explain the qualitative reasons for attrition at most schools.  He suggests that provosts examine the educational culture of their institutions for explanations of a student’s integration/socialization into academic life.  His final paragraph states that combating the problem of attrition is expensive, difficult, and persistent (particularly throughout the past 100 plus years). 

Thelin’s comment about the IPEDS data is accurate, but slim with data supporting it.  The system was designed during an era when more college students were “traditional,” i.e. first-time, full-time freshmen whose goals were to graduate in four years.  Over time, the system evolved to track students who graduate at 150 percent of the time expected to earn a degree (2 years times 150 equals 3 years for an associates’ degree; 4 years times 150 equals 6 years for a bachelor’s degree).  By the Department’s estimates, approximately 75 percent of today’s college students are “non-traditional,” meaning that they do not conform to the first-time, full-time freshman category when they start.  Not only does that fact suggest that the IPEDS data collected may not be relevant to the average college, but it also stresses the importance of a quantitative and qualitative analysis of retention by provosts and presidents.

There are many other research articles and publications that address the topic of college student retention.  Over the next few months, I intend to discuss a few of them that are relevant to institutions that focus more on the “non-traditional” student.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

Comment(2)

  1. Dear Wallace,

    I like the summary and framing you provide, but disagree with some of the statements in the article, in particular the assertion that “combating the problem is expensive, difficult and persistent”.

    I have been focused on improving retention and graduation rates in higher ed for several years and would assert that “combating the problem is wasteful, inconvenient and half-hearted”. There are many examples that demonstrate that if institutions provide at-risk students the support they need when they need it, retention and graduation rates increase significantly and immediately.

    Yet very few institutions do that. They traditionally have not individualized instruction and advising, and beginning to do so, although that would be within the capabilities of virtually every 4-year institution, is inconvenient, because it would require that faculty and staff broaden their roles from instructor and service staff to something more caring role akin a mentor.

    Institutional success is defined by the ability to attract research grants, state appropriations and U.S. News Ranking. Institutions operate to score well on these criteria. Increasing retention and graduation rates are still a goal at most institutions, but not a priority. Personnel decisions such as hiring and tenure, budget allocation, prioritizing of faculty responsibilities between research, instruction and advising all place the success criteria of the institution above student success.

    The good news is that once institutions get serious about student success, they can improve it relatively quickly. The bad news is that under the current incentive system few institutions do. It seems that it will take heavy-handed government interference at the federal and state levels to re-focus higher ed institutions on student success, just as it did in K-12 education.

  2. Christoph:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. My apologies for the confusion in my summary of Thelin’s article, but I believe he was attempting to describe a figurative and literal cost of combating attrition over the past century.

    I agree with you that identifying at-risk students upfront would benefit all institutions. Ideally, the benefit would be recognized by the institution without needing a prod from either state or federal government, but changing institutional cultures can take decades, not years. Given the climate in Washington, the timeframe for change may be accelerated.

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