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Persistence rates, continued

Topics/tags: Grinnell, followup

A few days ago, I mused about about persistence rates at Grinnell. When I did so, I didn’t expect to be writing a followup musing so soon thereafter. Instead, I had planned to read a variety of things, including the soon-to-be-released study on thriving at Grinnell. and reports from the Residential Learning Task Force and the Mental Health Task Force of a few years back. But things happen. In this case, I ended up receiving or processing a variety of indirect information that I don’t really want to leave to the side for a few weeks while I read.

Topic one: Four-year graduation rates

At Monday’s meeting, Dean Harris mentioned a rate of 80%. I wasn’t sure what that rate was. I know that our retention rate from the first-year to the second-year is much higher than that. I know that our six-year graduation rate is usually in the high 80’s, although I hear we dropped to 84% recently, which is worrisome [1].

I discovered that Dean Harris was referencing our four-year graduation rate. Part of me worries that we keep switching our metric; a few years ago, we talked about six-year graduation rates. Now we’re talking about four-year graduation rates. However, it’s worth looking at both. For example, if we’re graduating significantly more students in six years than in four years, we should be exploring what is preventing students from graduating in four years and considering the effects of a later graduation. Are students taking nine semesters, rather than eight, which likely means that they are incurring additional costs? In that case, we need to think about instituting and documenting financial aid plans that account for those situations [2]. Are students taking a semester off, but still spending eight semesters in school? And, if that’s the case, why are they taking a semester off? There may be very good reasons to do so, or there may be things that we need to address at Grinnell that will help. If students have good reasons to take a semester off, it may be fine that we have a lower four-year graduation rate.

What does our four-year graduation rate look like? In 2018, the year for which the most recent data are available [3], it was 78%. That’s embarrassingly low. At least I think it’s embarrassingly low; I guess it depends on what our peers do. Let’s turn to the data. Here’s a chart for your perusal [4]. I’ve tried to organize data by 2018 four-year graduation rates.

School 2018 4Y Rate 2018 6Y Rate 2017 4Y Rate 2017 6Y Rate 2016 4Y Rate 2016 6Y Rate
Reed College 68 81 65 80 66 78
Oberlin College 75 86 75 86 71 85
Grinnell College 78 84 84 87 81 86
St Olaf College 82 86 85 88 85 88
Smith College 83 89 82 88 86 89
Colorado College 84 89 82 88 82 87
Kenyon College 85 87 86 91 89 90
Macalester College 85 90 85 87 84 88
Amherst College 85 93 90 95 86 93
Vassar College 87 92 85 90 87 91
Swarthmore College 87 94 89 94 88 94
Carleton College 88 93 89 94 88 92
Bowdoin College 88 95 91 95 89 94
Pomona College 89 94 89 93 92 97
Davidson College 90 90 88 91 91 95
Williams College 90 95 86 94 86 94
Washington and Lee 92 95 89 92 88 92

Those data confirm that 78% is very low for our peer group. That worries me [5]. I expect it worries you, too. And, even though there is clearly some variability, we are regularly near the bottom of our peer group. The issue clearly needs to be addressed because it suggests that we are not serving some of our students as well as we should. Although it has been phrased as a keeping up with our peers issue in the past, our true motivation should be supporting our students, and I’m glad that Dean Harris phrases it that way.

Topic two: Workload

I’m also glad to hear that the ever-busy and ever-thoughtful Andi Tracy ’99 [6] is spearheading an effort to gather information on workload from course syllabi. That’s a good reason to ask faculty to submit their syllabi to the Dean’s office. And, as I understand it, Andi is looking at a wide variety of issues, not just the quantity of work, but also the type and distribution.

I will admit that I have some concerns about any study of course-related workload. Since some folks are insistent that we meet federal guidelines about expected course workload (12 hours per week for a four-credit course), I’d like to make sure we understand what that means and what we’ll do if we find out a course is either far under or far over that amount. If you’re not sure what I mean by what that means, I’m alluding to the issue that different students spend different amounts of time on the same assignment. Do we measure the average time students in a class spend? The maximum? The minimum? Some percentile? And should Grinnell students really be our core metric? Should we perhaps estimate based on the average student in the US, whatever that is?

In any case, Andi is thoughtful and well experienced in thinking about student workload and wellness issues. I look forward to reading her study [8]. And I hope that we’ll act on it.

Topic three: Acting on recommendations

On that note, I’ve now heard from a variety of folks that Grinnell has done a variety of studies about these kinds of issues, but seems to be slow to implement any of the recommendations from those studies or the associated task forces and working groups. In some ways, that’s not surprising; Grinnell, like many institutions, is slow to change. From what I heard from Dean Harris at the Faculty Meeting, I believe that we’ll still see an impact from the studies in that people will be reading the reports and implementing appropriate recommendations [9].

Topic four: Academic support is not just academic support

I was also reminded that the academic support services we put in place, including not only Partners in Education (which I mentioned in the musing), but also the Science Learning Center and the Math Lab, are not just academic support services. Many of the staff and faculty who run those services spend as much or more time on personal issues with students as they do on academic issues, and therefore impact the students’ sense of belonging.

Topic five: Unintended consequences

A few days after I posted the first musing, I received the following invitation from the once and future director of the CTLA.

I am writing to ask if you would agree to lead a Faculty Friday lunch on Jan 24 on the topic of student retention. I understand that you have written an essay on the topic in reaction to some comments by Dean Harris. Could you kick off a discussion of the topic?

Why do these things happen to me? I’m not sure I said anything of particular import in the musing; I was just trying to gather my thoughts. And, as I suggested in the prior musing, I have a bunch of reading to do before I really understand the topic.

I’m an idiot. So I agreed to put together a group to plan a lunchtime discussion on retention and persistence for January 24. Next up is figuring out who to invite to help put it together. I’ve sent a note to a colleague who regularly teaches me a lot about these issues. I’ve sent a note to Joyce Stern, who knows more about persistence than almost anyone on campus. I’ve written to my downstAIRs [12] neighbors. I’ve sent a note to Dean Harris to get suggestions. I’ve also asked that we make it a Faculty and Staff Friday [14] since the conversation needs to involve both groups [15]. I’m glad that I have some more time to work on it.

And beyond

Those are the main topics I recall hearing about in the past few days. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, and that I will hear about others in the coming days and weeks. I’ll report back again in the near future, after I’ve also had a chance to read and reflect a bit more.

[1] I’ve also heard that the 84% was expected and that some unlikely-to-be-repeated factors played into that low rate.

[2] In my experience, Grinnell has been generous with students who need a ninth semester to graduate. But I don’t know whether that’s always the case. And clear documentation would reduce stress on everyone.

[3] I believe the 2018 rates represent the students who started in 2015 and who graduated by the end of May 2018. But I could be wrong.

[4] I believe all of the data are available in IPEDS. I hope that I’ve transcribed them correctly.

[5] It worries me even though I acknowledge that there can be very good reasons for students to take a semester off.

[6] It’s taken me more than a decade to realize that her email address is [tracyand]. I wonder how many people ask Tracy and who? [7].

[7] Inadvertently interesting Grinnell email addresses is a good potential topic for a musing. Some that immediately come to mind are Gal Angry (male and even-tempered) and Perl Mutt (neither a dog nor a Perl programmer), but I know that there are others.

[8] Or her team’s study, depending on how it’s done.

[9] Or trying to implement appropriate recommendations. We may see some pushback from various quarters. I’ve mentioned one: If you tell faculty that they are assigning too much work, some of us (myself included), will want to see more evidence of that. Here’s another: Suppose there’s evidence that marijuana use increases the likelihood of students taking a semester off [10]. If the College institutes additional policies on that use, I expect that students will express some dissatisfaction with the limits on self-governance [11].

[10] There’s more likely to be evidence of correlation, rather than causation.

[11] Note: I am not directly aware of any use of illegal drugs on campus. But I know that students express dissatisfaction at any impositions on self-governance.

[12] My current office is on the second floor of 1127 Park. Analytics and Institutional Research (AIR) is on the first floor.

[14] My request was approved.

[15] It should also involve students, but I also think it’s important to talk together as faculty and staff.

Version 1.0 released 2019-11-24.

Version 1.0.1 of 2019-11-24.