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Stay in the Pack


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Among all the public four-year colleges in Louisiana, not one has a four-year graduation rate over 30 percent. For the parents who pay tuition, let me restate that. According to data generated by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than two-thirds of all public university students in Louisiana take longer than four years to graduate. Private colleges are better than their public counterparts, but much is to be desired. Only a third of private colleges graduate more than half of their students in four years.

The time towards graduation has increased so steadily that the six-year graduation rate has become the industry standard. What variables have contributed to longer stays? Students stop-out, transfer, go part time, fail out and/or quit altogether. This is particularly true for students who are the first in their families to go to college. Students must graduate, but time equals money. No one has the latter. Neither parents nor institutions can afford longer stays in college.

Once upon a time administrators tried to scare students into staying in college. When I was a freshmen in 1989, I received the traditional matriculation speech, “Look to your left, look to your right; one of them will not be here next year.” University leaders viewed student departure as a benign tradeoff of a rigorous campus. For centuries, colleges and universities created cultures of expected early leaving.

Research on college retention shows that academic preparedness is a much smaller factor than once believed. Student life and financial aid significantly influence whether students stay or go. Institutions can’t place the departure blame solely on students.

The traditional speech must be revised to, “Look to your left, look to your right and look ahead; “we’re in this together.”

Experiencing college in packs increases student graduation and retention rates. Be it athletic teams, research groups or living-learning communities, as well as religious or academic clubs, when students learn in packs, they stay in college. Good retention programs make college smaller. Great ones match a diverse student body with diverse sub-communities.

Learning in groups is counter-intuitive in an increasingly individualistic, self-determined educational world. Universities are acting more like supermarkets where students get their goods and leave. This type of culture is antithetical to community building.

College faculty must work with student and academic affairs to generate more experiences that groom students into small communities of academic disciplines. Administration must honor faculty for their community building efforts. Tenure and promotion should reward faculty who transform at-risk students into colleagues. Student affairs must also make college more family-like. Remember, “We’re all in this together.”

Students should not fall into a degree. They should graduate as members of a university. Learning in packs requires investments in community building. Students and families simply can’t afford matriculation speeches as the solution for our retention problems.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.

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