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Grinnell’s persistence rate

Topics/tags: Grinnell

At yesterday’s faculty meeting, Dean Harris spent some time discussing our persistence rate [1] and the ways we would be working on improving that rate. Once again, I was reminded how fortunate we are to have her here. While previous discussions of our persistence rate have been in terms of our attempt to reach the levels of our peers [2], Dean Harris phrased things in terms of the responsibilities we have to the students we accept, particularly our responsibility to help them succeed. That’s a much different story than we should strive to have Swarthmore’s [3] rate. It’s certainly a perspective that makes me want to join in, whereas I found the other one less compelling [4].

But can we do better than the high 80’s, which seems to be our norm? That’s a difficult question. I’ve written a bit about that matter in an earlier musing [5,6]. But it seems worth revisiting the question. I expect to revisit it a third time after I’ve read the large collection of materials that the institution has developed over the past few years.

On that note, I appreciate that Grinnell has spent a lot of time studying issues likely to be at play when students fail to persist at Grinnell. As Dean Harris suggested, while we’ve worked hard to gather important quantitative and qualitative information, such as through exit interviews, we’ve also done broader studies that provide us with much deeper information. And, as she noted, we are incredibly fortunate to have folks like Georgeanna Robinson and Kaitlin Wilcox to conduct those studies [7].

So what next? Let me start with my normal cautions.

First, I worry that the growth of large data analytics and machine learning might lead some to take an approach that affects who we admit. If we can identify characteristics of students less likely to persist, and stop admitting students with those characteristics, then our completion rate will likely increase. While that is a comparatively easy approach and it’s even one that’s been suggested elsewhere [8], it’s also the wrong approach for a place like Grinnell. If we discovered, for example, that conservative students, students from the American South, or Jewish students persist less at Grinnell, we should strive to identify the reasons that these groups do not persist and help address them. For example, if we find that conservative students are less likely to persist because of the legendary Grinnell Smackdown, we should address how students treat those with differing perspectives [9]. If we find that students from the South tend to leave because they cannot bear more winters in Grinnell, then we should find ways to help them see the joy in winter or accept that some such students will leave [10]. If we find that Jewish students are less likely to persist because we have not yet replaced our Rabbi, we should redouble our efforts to find a new one, and, perhaps rethink the job expectations.

Second, as much as I love Grinnell, it’s not clear to me that Grinnell is the right place for every student. As we tell our Grinnell Science Project Students, we’re thrilled to have them choose a major in the sciences, but we’ll support them even if they choose another major. I think the same principle applies to the institution; some students who come to Grinnell may realize that they will benefit more from a different approach to education.

Third, I worry that some aspects of the particular situation at Grinnell may make achieving our peers’ levels of persistence more difficult, even though there’s only a small gap between our high 80’s and their low 90’s. While some of our peers are also distant from airports or otherwise rural [11], they are usually in more populous states, and so it feels more like they are near civilization [12]. We know that our location has an effect on our ability to recruit students. Isn’t it likely that it also affects persistence? President Kington also regularly tells us that our student population has a very different income distribution than those of our peer institutions. In particular, we have many more needy students and many fewer full-pay students [14]. I can’t help but think that income has some effect on persistence. I know it can have a significant effect on students’ experiences at Grinnell, even though many of our policies, such as no-cost events, are designed to make money less of a factor. I think, for example, of the students I know who work as many hours as they can, not only to support their schooling, but also to send money home to support their families.

Now that I think about it, we could use some of our resources to help with the latter issue. That is, we could institute a variety of agile and low-friction mechanisms to support students who have unexpected financial situations. We may even have some of those in place. But it’s an avenue worth pursuing. I know that anecdotes are not data, but I recall losing a student I valued highly whose parent lost their job and found that Grinnell was not willing to adjust their financial aid, or at least not without a lot of effort on the student’s part [15].

I know that we’re also trying to use some of our resources to address another likely factor in student persistence, the availability of mental health resources on campus and in town. We’ve been less successful at building those resources than one would hope, but I’m glad to know that it seems to remain a priority [16].

From what I recall of the reports I’ve read or heard about [17], the primary factors for students choosing to leave or choosing to stay have more to do with finding a sense of belonging than, say, their academic success [18]. There are, of course, a wide variety of issues that play into that sense of belonging, including experiences with other students, Grinnell’s alcohol culture, and even our location. I know that students’ workload is also an important factor. As Dean Harris suggested at the faculty meeting, we should be addressing workload issues for everyone on campus, students, faculty, and staff [19,20].

Anyway, given that academic success is less of an issue, it’s been interesting to see that our most public mechanisms for addressing persistence [21] have focused on academic success. These include the new midterm reporting system, Belinda Backous’ Scholar’s Seminar, and Partners in Education [22] These are all good things, but it seems that we shouldn’t be promoting them as our mechanisms for addressing persistence issues. Why? Because the evidence we gather for their success should not be our persistence rates, but rather students’ academic success.

At the meeting, Dean Harris asked if the various faculty committees have discussed persistence and worked on policies and practices to affect persistence. The midterm reporting system was mentioned as one such endeavor. But I’ll admit that when we talk about workload, my mind keeps coming back to the proposal of a few years ago to designate each credit hour as requiring a minimum of three hours a week of work [23]. I realize that the proposal was necessary to meet Federal guidelines. Nonetheless, it means that we expect most of our students to spend a minimum of forty-eight hours per week on classwork. If you add, say, ten hours per week for a campus job, and twenty hours per week for a team, that’s an incredibly large number of hours [24]. I don’t know how we address that issue, but it’s something we need to think about when we talk about workload.

One place to start might be measuring student workload, although that could be a dangerous direction. What happens if we discover that students average only eight hours per week on their four-credit courses? And, given some faculty members’ unwillingness to provide full syllabi, what will we do when we discover that some classes are requiring significantly more than twelve hours per week? I know that I would push back if someone told me that I had to cut work because my students were averaging more than that much [27]. I’m still not sure what the twelve hours per week is supposed to mean; is that average, among all students, minimum of all students, bottom quartile, or what?

What else is there to address beyond academic success, mental health, financial support (particularly in unexpected situations), and workload? I’m told that a sense of belonging is quite important. How do we help students feel like they belong at Grinnell? I’ve heard that the practice of encouraging students to participate in campus events can also be helpful [29,30]. I’m pretty sure that some of the studies from AIR [28] will help us develop a broader understanding and guide us in new practices.

In any case, I look forward to hearing discussions over the next few months and seeing ways in which we find ways to better support our students. Let’s make this great institution even better and find new ways to help our students thrive!

[1] I may not be using the term correctly. There are a variety of rates we consider, including retention from students’ first year to their second year, four-year graduation rate, and six-year graduation rate. uses retention rate for the first and graduation rate for the last. I’m using persistence rate as a stand-in for the general concept, although I think the statistics I quote are for six-year graduation rate.

[2] In particular, when we discussed this before, the President’s office stated that,

While our recent six year completion rates of 88 to 90 percent exceed the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States, we also know that they do not compare favorably with the highly selective liberal arts colleges that we benchmark ourselves against.

[3] Fill in the name of the institution of your choice.

[4] I suppose I could find one of the underlying perspectives a bit more compelling. If we improve our persistence rate, our US News rating goes up, and that can have important benefits to the institution, particularly as we try to deal with national changes to admissions policies and practices and as we strive to recruit a more diverse group of students. On the other hand, I recall that President Osgood pledged that while we would report data to US News, we would not strive to improve the metrics they look at only for the sake of improving our rating.

[5] A much earlier musing. It was musing #23, which I wrote more than three years ago. I even called them essays back then.

[6] More accurately, it was a rant.

[7] We’re also fortunate to have Catherine Renner directing Analytics and Institutional Research. And I don’t know where we’d be without Carlie Van Willigen, who does so much to help us gather and understand data.

[8] I recall one of my favorite students attending a science poster session and getting incensed that there was a research poster suggesting just that.

[9] I believe that’s one of the goals of the new First-Year Experience course.

[10] No, I don’t think we should use our massive endowment to change the weather. I also don’t think we should use the approach to rankings advocated by Andrew Kensler in his award-winning Titular Head film.

[11] I think, for example, of Hamilton and Washington and Lee.

[12] No, Iowa is not uncivilized. I couldn’t find a better term, and I think it’s one that those who might not persist at Grinnell might choose.

[14] Or at least students whose family resources would allow them to be full-pay students.

[15] That was more than a decade ago. Given my experiences with Brad Lindberg and the Office of Financial Aid, I would expect that things would go much more smoothly now.

[16] I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite long-term strategy for building mental health services on campus: Set up a program in which Grinnell funds Grinnell alumni to study for appropriate counseling degrees, with the understanding that they must then come back to Grinnell for some period of time.

[17] As I said, I need to read or reread them. After I do so, I will likely post a followup musing.

[18] As I tell my students, we wouldn’t accept you to Grinnell if we didn’t think you had what it takes to succeed academically.

[19] That’s a paraphrase.

[20] Speaking of workload, whatever happened to the Faculty Workload study that the College was conducting? I don’t recall any clear results or guidelines on how we might address workload issues.

[21] Or at least what some members of the administration have described as retention efforts.

[22] I think that’s the name. It’s the project that has been led by Mark Schneider and Jean Ketter in recent years.

[23] I can’t recall whether that proposal came from Curriculum Committee or the Committee on Academic Standing.

[24] You can also consider the time spent on clubs and other activities. We also have students who work as many as twenty hours each week on campus [25].

[25] Some may work more off campus. We try to cap on-campus work at twenty hours [26].

[26] Have I told you the story of what happened when the University of Chicago realized that I was working more than twenty hours per week as an undergraduate? If not, remind me to tell you the story some time.

[27] I will admit that when I looked at some of my end-of-course evaluations yesterday, one student wrote something like I did more work in this class than any other class at Grinnell. I also learned more in this class than any other class at Grinnell. That seems like a reasonable correlation. And it does make me worry.

[28] Analytics and Institutional Research.

[29] On that note, be sure to attend one of the four dance performances this weekend!

[30] I’ve encouraged students to participate in events on campus for much of my career at Grinnell. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve heard that it’s a good practice for building belonging. It’s nice to know that my inclinations in teaching can have a positive impact.

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-19.