John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Addressing Retention: Only With a Slog!

December 17, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I rarely ever quote the former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, one of the Neocons who brought us the disastrous war in Iraq, positively, but I do in this context. Referring to the war once as what he predicted would be a long, hard “slog”, gives me my text for the day.

I have just participated in the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which I look forward to. Why? Because I think the regional accreditors are some of the most positive forces for change that we have going for us in the academy today. And I enjoy my reunions with a huge number of friends I have made as a fellow higher educator in the region for over four decades.

Like all the annual meetings of the regional accreditors, SACS has an exhibit area for “vendors.” Much as I have tried to avoid becoming this, I have become what they classify as a “vendor”—that is “I” in the sense of the non-profit organization which I lead. We want to talk to fellow higher educators about our work and so we rent a booth space. We are a not-for-profit 501c3 public charity, but still we are a “vendor.” And we are not the only not-for-profit vendor, although we are in the minority.

So what has this to do with “slog”? Well it has to do with all the primarily for-profit vendors who shamelessly claim to address and improve retention. And they make some really impressive claims. The majority of them seem to be addressing retention through technology driven magic bullets. In my interactions with fellow vendors I am impressed by their earnestness, sincerity, enthusiasm, and that uniquely American drive to sell. But I am not impressed that very many of them have any in-the-trenches experience with today’s college students.

In contrast, as much as I would like to offer panaceas, I cannot. For better than all the other vendors I know the only way to address the challenges of retention are through long, hard, “slogs.” There are no magic bullets. No quick fixes. Caveat emptor.

As I watch the potential customers interact with the vendors I am impressed with how much pressure many of my fellow educators believe they are under to improve retention. And this is real pressure. Now more and more of them are in states and institutions where finally funding levels are being influenced by retention and graduation performance metrics. No wonder they are feeling pressure. But this pressure I believe leads to a level of desperation that makes many of them very vulnerable to the entreaties of well intentioned sales persons.

I am sure of few things but I am sure that the only improvements I can imagine will come from long, hard slogs, and primarily not from what we do with technology. Instead they will come from the direct actions, decisions, pedagogies we educators take in direct communication with our students and with each other. Most of what we most need, we already have, and we don’t need to buy. What we already have are ourselves.

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