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Among all the issues in higher education today, retention once again captures our attention. Most influential is the publication of Crossing the Finish Line, a study of completing college at America’s public universities, written by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson. It’s reinforced by the June 2009 report, "Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t)," by Frederick M. Hess, Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey, and Andrew P. Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. The two studies have rekindled our concern about the percentage of undergraduates who fail to complete their bachelor degrees.

It’s not just a source of concern to higher education researchers. My own provost, for example, last year declared a “War On Attrition” -- a campaign slogan that elevated stopping college drop outs to the alarm status usually associated with such national crises as the “war on drugs” or “the war on terrorism.”

The concern is, of course, with current problems and future remedies. Bowen, Chingos and McPherson’s sobering data about low degree completion at state universities confirms why their discipline of economics has been called the dismal science. The finding that few state universities graduate more than about 65 percent of their undergraduates in six years is particularly problematic because it indicates a decline from the retention and graduation rate at the same institutions twenty ago. What’s important about this last point is its suggestion that history matters. “How we are doing” in graduating students means at least in part, “Are we doing better or worse than in the past?”

One difficulty, though, is that the data bases on which economists and social scientists usually rely in studying higher education issues today do not extend far back in time. IPEDS and its predecessor, HEGIS, were first compiled in the late 1960s. So, we are left with the question of historical context: How do college graduation rates of today fare when compared with, let’s say, about a century ago?

It’s an important question because one temptation for academic leaders today is to presume that in the early 1900s college students enrolled full time and then graduated in four years. But was that so? To connect past and present I propose what Hollywood producers call a “prequel” -- a backward look that provides context for our present discussions.

I gathered and analyzed enrollment, retention, and graduation data at a number of colleges from the period 1890 to 1910. This includes a mix of public and private institutions -- Harvard, Brown, Amherst College, William & Mary, Transylvania University, and the University of Kentucky. I look at enrollment trends in two ways: first, by relying on the annual summaries that colleges published in their official catalogs. And, second, for some selected cases, I used contemporary attrition-retention-graduation tracking methods applied back a century. What this meant was to compile name-by-name tracking of freshmen an entering class at a college, then followed them name-by-name for four years.

These samples suggest that undergraduate retention and graduation a century ago varied greatly among colleges. It also tempers nostalgia, as even some prestigious, established colleges lost a large percentage of students on the way from freshman orientation to commencement exercises over four years.

Consider the entering class of Brown University in fall 1900 -- 157 freshmen. Four years later, Brown’s catalog listed 113 students in the senior class, with 103 receiving bachelor’s degrees. That is a four year retention rate of 72 percent, with 66 percent receiving a degree in four years. Not bad.

But look again! If one tracks those freshmen students name-by-name, the record is not so impressive. In fact, only 86 of the original 157 students were still enrolled as seniors -- and 78 received bachelor’s degrees. The four year retention rate actually was 55 percent -- and 50 percent received degrees at the end of four years.

The annual rosters, then, indicate that there were a substantial number of students showing up in the senior year who had not been there three years earlier. In other words, there were 30 students within a class of about 150 who either were dropouts who had returned to Brown -- or students who had transferred from other colleges.

A comparable pattern holds at the University of Kentucky. If one relies on the president’s annual reports, the 124 freshmen who started their studies in fall 1907 showed a high persistence rate of 93 percent into the sophomore year, followed by 65 percent in the junior year, and 54 percent in the senior year – with 52 percent receiving the bachelor’s degree in Spring 1911. This is borderline acceptable -- but, unfortunately, on closer inspection, the news gets worse. When one tracks each of the entering students name-by-name the retention rate drops dramatically -- showing in successive years 59 percent, 36 percent, and 30 percent reaching the senior year and receiving degrees.

In the early 1900s students enrolled in Harvard College typically showed a four year retention and graduation rate of about 65 to 75 percent. Amherst College, in contrast, underwent a dramatic change around 1900, with a persistent decline in graduation rate from about 75 to 85 percent in the 1890s to a range of about 50 to 60 percent between 1900 and 1905. Why this drop took place warrants close examination. In one year, there was an interesting explanation: Most seniors refused to accept their degrees as a sign of protest against the Board of Trustees for firing a president that the students liked.

The College of William & Mary provides one of the most puzzling cases. Today, as indicated in the two recent studies, William & Mary has one of the best graduation rates among all public universities -- 91 percent in six years. Looking back to the period 1900 to 1905, data for retention after the first year seems consistent, as more than 90 percent of freshmen returned for the sophomore year.

The surprising trend is that only about half the students then return for the junior year. And, a year later at commencement, only a handful of students received the bachelor of arts degree. The explanation for this bizarre syndrome is that most students were from impoverished families and needed to earn a living. The Commonwealth of Virginia allowed undergraduates to receive after two years the “L.I.” -- License of Instruction . This certified one to teach in Virginia’s public schools.

Evidently the prospect of starting a teaching career and earning a salary after two years trumped the goal of completing a bachelor’s degree. What it meant was that for an extended period, William & Mary was enrolling an unconventional group of two-year college students within the structure and customs of a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree institution.

What these historical case studies show is that retention was relatively low, at least when analyzed by the expectations of higher education researchers today. In the period 1890 to 1910, one liberal arts college had an attrition rate of 50 percent after the freshman year. At the end of four years the percentage of degree completions seldom surpassed 15 percent. At the high end, seldom does one find a college with a four year graduation rate of more than 65 to 75 percent. One of the most unexpected findings revealed by student cohort tracking are the signs of substantial transfers into a college, along with stopping out and dropping out -- contrary to the notion of full time undergraduates persisting at the same college for four years.

This story from a century ago does not at all dispel or contradict Crossing the Finish Line or "Diplomas and Dropouts." It does give a rich context as prelude to dissecting student attrition as a crisis in the early 21st century. College presidents in their annual reports back a century ago usually exaggerated or over-estimated the retention rates in their summaries -- whether by accident or design. One provocative suggestion is that college dropouts are a perennial problem in American higher education.

A Search for Answers

How to explain these surprising trends from a century ago?

Was the price of going to college causing students to stop their studies? This does not appear to be the case. Even though this was an allegedly “elite” era in access to higher education, college tuition charges were relatively low -- and showed scant increases over a two decade period.

One intriguing explanation rests with the values of the student culture of the era. In the late 19th and early 20th century one of the most popular banners found in dormitory rooms nation wide proclaimed, “Don’t Let Your Studies Interfere With Your Education!” Evidently a lot of freshmen heeded this advice. At Yale, each class vied for the honor of having the lowest academic rating. In one yearbook the Class of 1904 boasted “more gentlemen and fewer scholars than any other class in the memory of man.” Not to be outdone, the Class of 1905 countered with the self-congratulatory claim:

Never since the Heavenly Host
With all the Titans fought
Saw they a class whose scholarship
Approached so close to naught!

This herd instinct away from academic achievement evidently endured. Jumping ahead to the 1920s at Harvard, the dean reminded freshmen that the key to college persistence was “Three C’s, a D -- and keep your name out of the newspaper.” This could hardly be called academia’s “Great Expectations.” What it does suggest is a variation on the theme of what Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson called the syndrome of “under matching” in which a student succumbs to the low academic priorities of a campus culture.

What about the large state universities that started to emerge between World Wars I and II -- and which are central to the 21st century studies? My hunch is that the extension of modest admissions requirements combined with relatively low tuition charges created intolerable overcrowding that was not relieved until the campus construction boom of the 1960s. In 1936 the University of Wisconsin offered an introductory economics course in a lecture hall that was filled with 800 students. After World War II, academic officials at the University of California at Berkeley stated matter-of-factly that they preferred undergraduates to have a lecture course with 500 students and an esteemed professor, rather than have a small class with a lesser academic star.

One dysfunctional legacy was the oft-repeated episode where a professor at State U. starts the semester by looking out over a crowded lecture hall and reminds the freshmen, “Just because we have to take you doesn’t mean we have to keep you!”

Faculty and administrators appeared to have been unconcerned about attrition until the early 1970s. Indeed, at some colleges and universities, a high dropout rate often was a source of perverse pride that a department had high academic standards. But that was then. Now, the reminder from the two recent reports is that the failure of students to complete the bachelor’s degree is seen by higher education officials as a vexing problem with no obvious solutions.

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