John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

My Worst Fears

John N. Gardner

There are so many challenges that our students face in coming to college at all, making a successful transition into college, and then being able to find the way(s) to keep paying for it, both during and after college. So to help them we all want to have as many people as possible on our front lines who really know what to do to help more students become successful.

Some of us get it. Others don’t. I love the ones who do. And I fear the harm from the ones who don’t.

I have written before of the insatiable search for the magic bullet of retention. The lust for a panacea. The quest for the Holy Grail of Retention.

And I have come to the conclusion that I have been at this work long enough now to see that that quest is increasingly based on the assumption that technology will show us the way, how to retain more students. There is such a long history of technology changing America and of our love affair with “things.”

My favorite American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the late 1840’s “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

I have believed that increasingly many of my fellow student success higher educators were looking for the ultimate savior for retention to exist in technology based solutions, but I had never before had one actually admit this to me.

It happened this last weekend. My non-profit organization had a booth at the Annual Meeting of the Higher Learning Commission. And I spent a good bit of time in that booth, time I really enjoy. I have reunions with partners in crime spanning decades. And I meet new people. And I get ideas from people and insights into what they are looking for.

So up comes this guy to the booth, introduces himself, and tells me that his campus senior leadership sent him to this meeting with the specific charge “to find some technology that we can buy to improve our retention.” This was confirmation of my worst fears. There really are people in my profession like this who just don’t get it. And so I did an unwise thing. I tried to give him a primer on how to improve student retention. And it didn’t conclude technology as a panacea.

I started by explaining that what mattered much more was what he did—or didn’t do. And, of course, I indicated it just wasn’t what he did, but all the other educators on campus who relate to students. By my standards, my primer for him was succinct but specific. But he didn’t get it. He couldn’t/wouldn’t consider any other way to look at this other than through a technology based solution which surely must exist.

I am really scared now. I have colleagues in the profession who really do think this way. No wonder corporate America is pushing on the academy all these technology based solutions. They already knew my colleagues think this way. And many educators think this way precisely because these solutions are being marketed to them. Makes me wonder how these educators got through college without mastering critical thinking….? My worst fears have been confirmed. But I have long known that we Americans like simple solutions to complex problems. I have to find a way to simplify my primer on how to enhance student retention. Maybe then a few more people will believe me and won’t be looking for the Holy Grail of Retention in technology.

PS: I am not opposed to technology. I use it all the time and I am glad to have it. I am opposed to oversimplifying complex problems with simplistic proposed solutions. And I am opposed to my fellow higher educators, most of whom are smart people, confusing ends with means and means with ends, like this guy was doing.

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