Hagedorn does an excellent job of laying out a “new look at an old problem” and even moves into looking at retention from multiple angles much like Boyer did for scholarship when he dropped the Scholarship Reconsidered thought bomb in 1990.

However, let us move away a bit from the what and into the why. Why do institutions care about persistence and retention? Why should you care about persistence and retention?

Institutions care about persistence and retention for myriad reasons, some altruistic and some very pragmatic. Student success, however defined, lives at the heart of every institution (I realize this could be challenged, but I have chosen to keep my cynic hat in the closet for today’s screed).

At the same time, increased competition and federal oversight result in schools scrutinizing student numbers in very different ways than ever before. Tinto (2006) observed that some 40 years ago student attrition was looked at mostly from a psychology lens and focused mostly on student “attributes, skills, and motivation” (p. 2).

However, that one-pronged approach has been thoroughly eradicated in the intervening years. We now have a range of models, some sociological, some psychological, and others economic in nature that have been proposed as being better suited to the task of explaining student leaving (Tinto, 2006, p. 4).

Again, great work trying to understand why students do or do not persist or why institutions have fluctuating retention numbers.

In a former life as a higher education administrator I was in these conversations. I crunched the numbers. I played fast and loose with the “factors” I thought we could control as an institution and those that were completely up to the student.

We surveyed students on individual courses, on overall program outcomes, and even asked graduates to tell us what we could have done better. I read countless essays, all extremely earnest, detailing what the chosen graduate degree would do for each respective student’s future.

In all those meetings, in the midst of reading, or staring cross-eyed at spreadsheets, the one question I never remember asking any student directly was this. What does completing your degree mean for you?

(Next page: Coming together in persistence and retention)


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