Chief executives / executive directors

Essay on how to improve retention

In the hope of improving American higher education, President Obama set a goal in 2009 of improving college degree attainment rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This represents a 50 percent increase in attainment rates. This does not seem to me to be an outlandish objective. Indeed, we accomplished just such a 50 percent improvement at my college over an eight-year period. It happened by accident, but we learned something from it about the kinds of things that might help one meet such a goal intentionally. Here is the story.

It happened “by accident” because we did not set out to reduce attrition or increase graduation rates. Instead, we fixed things at the college that were not working well or were broken. It was an ad hoc process, with no particular order. Indeed, progress was often slowed for want of adequate funding. But with a few years’ attention to improving conditions for living and learning, we suddenly discovered we had another problem to address: We had a larger student body than we had intended because fewer students were leaving. As problems go, this was a nice one to have.

Let me give examples of the kinds of changes that produced this happy result.

  • We repaired physical facilities that had fallen into disrepair through petty acts of vandalism. And we found ways to increase student self-policing, which led to greater student pride in their campus facilities.
  • Since freshmen, as a general rule, were responsible for the largest portion of misbehavior on campus, we increased upper-class presence in freshman dorms, doubled the number of adult senior residents, and built new dormitories to bring back to campus a larger percentage of upperclassmen.
  • There were parts of the academic program where our students needed more help than they could get in class. So we established a formal group of paid student mentors to help individuals with their classroom studies.
  • Medical problems were the single greatest cause of students' leaving during the academic year. So we improved the quality and number of our medical, nursing and counseling staff.
  • We added a substantial competitive paid internship program that allowed students to build their own internships over the summer. This helped to greatly decrease the anxiety among upperclassmen about their future job prospects.
  • For students who felt the need to leave for financial reasons, we established a crisis fund, from which they could seek up to $3,000 to tide them over through an emergency.

These examples may sound familiar to experienced campus program administrators. But my point is that every college is going to have a different problem to solve at a different time. Each campus community has a better sense of itself and its needs than someone from outside. The only way we can improve student retention substantially is to support a wide range of self-identified improvement efforts at each college and university.

Every change identified above had a cost attached to it, sometimes quite significant. We did not spend our scarce resources on measuring the retention effects of each program. Instead we continued to invest in programs and improvements that our students and faculty told us would be helpful and good in themselves. Higher retention rates seem to have been an inevitable byproduct.

What we could have used was a start-up grant to help us test ideas before building them into our operating budget. Fortunately, funds were available to us from private sources. But imagine the impact that a grant program could have on such efforts — a program designed not to provide solutions from above but to support individual campus efforts toward meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.

Here is an idea for such a program that would be simple to administrate and extremely helpful, especially to the smaller institutions across the country that are the front-line providers of educational opportunities to first-generation college students and the seriously disadvantaged. The Department of Education could make a block grant to one of our national college presidential associations, or to the various state associations.

I imagine some of these associations would be eager to help ease the burden on both the department and the colleges in administering such start-up or incentive-based programs for their members, allowing member institutions to apply for such grants as would help achieve the purposes I have described.

I think it is bad public policy to have institutions breaking their backs to chase government money. Instead, government money should be following the need and investing in the efforts that local administrators and teachers believe will help keep their students in school, or better yet, investing in the programs that are already working to achieve the president’s objectives.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.

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Essay says that students need not decide between job-related and more general educational approaches

There has been extensive hand-wringing about what can be done to help young graduates succeed in today’s tough labor market – especially in the spring, as high school seniors decide on their college offers, and college seniors prepare to graduate and face the world. Unemployment and underemployment rates among recent college graduates in the United States – largely a result of the recession’s lingering damage – are too high. And we’ve all seen the headlines questioning the value of college and the surveys that show employers bemoaning the “preparedness gap.”

But I am full of optimism.

As a university president, I spend far too much time among skilled, talented, motivated young people to be anything but hopeful about the future of higher education and the capabilities of the millennial generation – those born roughly between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.  And honestly, surveys by my institution, Bentley University, of recruiters and students don’t reflect these headlines. 

It’s perplexing. Is there such a disconnect to good jobs with this generation? And if there is one, let’s figure out how to resolve it instead of repeatedly touting the problem. So we chose to dig a little deeper and try to uncover the real issues. How do key stakeholders actually view the preparedness issue? And, more important, what will it take to ensure that millennials are fully prepared to succeed in the workplace?

We commissioned KRC Research to conduct a comprehensive preparedness survey of over 3,000 stakeholders, including employers, higher education leaders, students, parents, and recent college graduates. The survey found consensus in surprising places -- from rating recent graduates’ level of workforce preparedness to defining exactly what preparedness means. 

One of the most interesting set of findings revealed that businesses are conflicted about the skills they want in their new employees and, consequently, are sending mixed messages to the marketplace.  A majority of business decision-makers and corporate recruiters say that hard and soft skills are equally important for success in the workplace. (Hard skills are tangible ones, such as a student’s technical and professional skills, while soft skills include communicating well, teamwork and patience.)

Yet when asked to assess the importance of a comprehensive set of individual skills, business leaders put soft skills at the top of their list and industry and job-specific skills at the bottom; only 40 percent of employers say that the latter are important to workplace success. But while employers say soft skills are vital to long-term career success, they prefer to hire candidates with the industry-specific skills needed to hit the ground running, even if those candidates have less potential for future growth.

In the face of such conflicting information from employers, how should students and educators respond? Should they emphasize soft skills or hard skills?

The answer: This is a false choice. Students don’t need to – and shouldn’t have to – choose between hard and soft skills. It’s important for colleges to arm students with both skill sets -- whether a student is majoring in business or literature. By developing curriculums that fuse liberal arts and professional skills and by providing hands-on learning experiences, we can give our students the range of skills that are critical for the modern workplace.

This “fusion” was one of the popular solutions tested in the survey, and many schools are doing it already. Brandeis University, a private university with a liberal arts focus, says that its new undergraduate business program is already one of its most popular majors. (Brandeis points out that most of its business majors are double majors.) At West Virginia University, the College of Business and Economics and the School of Public Health have partnered to create a dual-degree program that will infuse business skills into the field of public health. At Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, students in the freshman “Ethics of Entrepreneurship” seminar take on a semesterlong project designed to help them flex their critical thinking and writing muscles in a global and social framework.

Bentley has also adopted several strategies to ensure we are preparing our students for success. Virtually every student here majors or minors in business, while simultaneously pursuing a core of arts and sciences courses that focus on expanding and inspiring traditional “business” thinking.  We recently expanded on our popular liberal studies major, an optional second major combined with a business major, by launching six-credit “fusion” courses co-taught by business and arts and sciences faculty.  Combinations include a management course (Interpersonal Relations in Management) with an English course (Women and Film) to explore how women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles; and a global studies course (U.S. Government and Politics) with an economics course (Macroeconomics) to teach how politics and economics work together and to demonstrate that understanding both is often essential to doing either one well. 

All this study must be combined with hands-on, “experiential” learning – the pathway to hard skills. This is where business organizations can play an important role. Santander, the global, multinational bank, created a scholarship program to support academic, research, and technological projects – we are proud to be one of the 800 institutions in their program. Corporate partners can also help shape curriculums to teach skills as they are actually practiced in the workplace. EY LLP (formerly Ernst and Young) worked closely with us to merge accounting and finance for freshmen and sophomores, since those disciplines are inextricably linked in the business environment.

These strategies aim to equip students with both hard and soft skills and they can be adopted and adapted by many colleges. A challenge in higher education is that some academic models can be so discipline-specific that students miss out on cross-disciplinary opportunities to integrate their knowledge. But it doesn’t have to work this way.

Like other colleges and universities that are innovating and experimenting, we are seeing returns on this curricular investment. One way to measure this: our survey of the Class of 2013 shows that 98 percent of responding graduates are employed or attending graduate school full time (this includes information from 95 percent of the class). Retention, number and availability of internships and repayment of student debt are also key metrics.

I encourage my higher education colleagues to refocus their attention on the ways we can work together to strengthen our education models. Millennials, a group that includes our current students, are counting on us to prepare them for successful careers and life. And in the long run, it is an economic imperative that we do so.


Gloria Cordes Larson is president of Bentley University.

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