Holding On to What We've Got

With its retention rate tumbling, U of All People brainstorms about some ideas to keep its students happy (or captive). David Galef recounts.

September 19, 2014

Student retention has been in the news a lot lately, but for a long time, no one at U of All People took it too seriously, since we’ve always had the same 20 percent rate of graduation within 20 years. To supplement our data, we also rely on anecdotal evidence, such as Professor Daissa Frogg’s looking around his biology lab in 2005 and exclaiming, “Where is everybody?” As it turned out, Professor Frogg had simply got the time wrong, and most of the students were at lunch.

But recently our rates have plummeted to below 10 percent, teasing at the edges of our institutional consciousness like a zen koan: What is the sound of a school with no students? Or, as the bursar, Shaumida Munnie, put it, “What’s a school that brings in zero tuition dollars?”

A hastily set-up committee, SSF (Stop Student Flight), came up with these findings: Students leave in droves during the summer, despite the current 24/7/12 system, under which no time slot or class space goes unfilled. But students also leave for reasons of bad grades (below a B+), drug and alcohol abuse (or insufficient quantities), and lack of financial support (in fact, we count on student dollars to support us). Also: apathy, irritation with overlong lectures, and the conviction that they could be spending their time more profitably flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Accordingly, the SSF has met at least twice and come up with some measures that should make U of All People the only campus in the U.S., beyond maximum-security prison, able to boast a 100 percent retention rate, if you define terms like “100,” “percent,” “retention,” and “rate” rather loosely. Here are some of the proposals:

  • Prescription parties, offering Abilify to Zoloft. The first dose is free, after which the drugs are distributed on an ascending scale of payment, though the cost may be waived if the student maintains a G.P.A. higher than 3.0.
  • Resident advisers recruited from the ranks of bar mitzvah motivators, enriching dorm life with games, loud music, and cheap party favors. Motivators will also encourage lollapalooza study sessions and romantic all-nighters.
  • Financial incentives. Since we can’t put everyone on scholarship, we propose to reward students who complete a minimum of 500 credit hours. Since the minimum number of hours required for graduation is 126, it’s mainly the thought that counts.
  • A grade-adjustment system, for any grades that students aren’t happy with. Students must fill out a form in which they explain why an A from U of All People means the world to them.
  • Ten-foot-high fences surrounding the campus, topped with concertina wire, and a full check of all delivery trucks going in and out.

In addition to these five programs, set to go into effect this fall, here is a set of additional ideas that, in the words of SSF chair Jess Kidden, “haven’t quite gelled yet”:

  • Peer pressure, including a campaign to “Sign the ‘Don’t drop out!’ pledge.” Posters, prizes.
  • Mandatory, undeletable phone app that buzzes maddeningly whenever the phone is away from campus for more than a week.
  • Free lunch every Monday, the cost built into every student’s activity fees.
  • Perfect-attendance certificates, suitable for framing or posting on Instagram (with special certificate filter).
  • Nightly head-count in the dorms.
  • Distribution of “We ♡ Our Students” T-shirts to faculty.

Note: The SSF did include a student representative on the committee, but by the second time the committee met, she had already withdrawn from school.


David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).



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