John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Focusing on the Metrics of Retention: Higher Education with No Soul

December 12, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a fellow higher educator wrote me to tell me that he/she was retiring. There were multiple reasons for the timing of this transition, but one of the factors was this educator’s disaffection with contemporary higher education’s concern with the “metrics to measure success.” She/he said it much better than any paraphrasing I could offer so I will quote from this message, about which I have been reflecting since I received it:

“I had to leave ….. just to save my sanity! Things were getting more and more interesting. I recognize the importance of metrics to measure success but when data becomes more important than developing the whole person I have to question how an institution defines education. I realized that I just could no longer be a party to the miseducation occurring in the name of progress or improvement as defined by increasing retention & completion numbers….at all cost. I foresee students walking away w/degrees but no soul or the ability to define their role in society. BUT, we will tout increased metrics!!!”

My readers may recall that I have written around this topic before, said topic which I would define most generically as the purposes for higher education. So what’s new about what this educator said to me?

It wasn’t that the sentiments were new. But it was that the sentiments were so strongly felt that they contributed to this valuable colleague deciding to leave the academy earlier than she/he might otherwise have done. And it was the intensity and poignancy of the language describing the well intentioned but misguided overemphasis on completion and retention. As I have asked before: “retention for what?” And I found particularly compelling the assertion that ultimately this higher educational cultural and policy emphasis on the metrics of retention will produce students with “no soul or the ability to define their role in society.”

It does appear to me that if not losing our souls, we in the academy, are being pushed by our external funders and policy makers into acting as if we have lost sight of the purposes of higher education, which go way beyond completion.

I am reminded of this because 11 years ago I was a participant in a think tank, literally, on a mountain top in western North Carolina, when our non-profit organization gathered some of the best minds we could assemble to develop a draft set of standards for excellence in institutional practices and policies that would define institutional excellence in the first year of college. We called these aspirational standards “Foundational Dimensions of Excellence”. Our idea was that these could and we hoped would be used by institutions to measure their levels of current performance, and for the purpose of creating an aspirational plan to improve institutional performance. Previously no such standards had existed. This work on developing the Foundational Dimensions ® was made possible by three foundations: Lumina Foundation for Education, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and The Atlantic Philanthropies. The good minds who gathered to undertake this task were Pat Terenzini, Bob Reason and Lee Upcraft of Pennsylvania State University; Edward Zlotkowski of Bentley College; and Betsy Barefoot, Randy Swing, Steven Schwartz and myself from our non-profit organization.

One of the so-called Foundational Dimensions of Excellence we produced spoke to the need for a clearly defined standard for excellence in the beginning collegiate experience as to how we introduce students to the purposes of higher education in general and the given institution in particular. We called that standard “Roles and Purposes” and defined it as follows:

“Foundations Institutions promote student understanding of the various roles and purposes of higher education, both for the individual and society.” These roles and purposes include knowledge acquisition for personal growth, learning to prepare for future employment, learning to become engaged citizens, and learning to serve the public good. Institutions encourage first-year students to examine systematically their motivation and goals with regard to higher education in general and to their own college/university. Students are exposed to the value of general education as well as to the value of more focused, in-depth study of a field or fields of knowledge (i.e., the major). (Roles and Purposes)

This standard and the other eight have actually been used, officially, in a self study process undertaken by 256 four and two-year colleges and universities in our Foundations of Excellence® self study and action planning process. A complete list of these institutions and the other eight Foundational Dimensions of Excellence can be found at

This is all to say that I resonate with the concerns expressed by this retiring higher educator. But I want to take heart that there is a growing community of fellow higher educators who are very mindful indeed of the larger purposes of higher education for which we want to retain students in order to attain these purposes.

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