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Letter to the Editor: Increasing retention requires community

Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012 14:11

Once upon a time, administrators tried to scare students into staying in college. When I was a freshman 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 across the country created cultures of expected early leaving that haunt institutions today.

College graduation is high stakes. A college degree has become the prime gateway into the middle class. This is especially true for first generation collegians. The current economic and social costs of not finishing in deliberate speed burden students, their families, the institution and the community at large. Individual and societal prosperity are tied to college retention.

The research on college retention has shown that preparedness and/or academic fitness is a much smaller factor than once believed. Institutions like Loyola cannot afford to discount the realities of our shared fates. The traditional speech must be revised to, “Look to your left, look to your right and look ahead; we’re in this together.”

Fortunately, studies on retention support Loyola’s running slogan. Experiencing college in packs increases student graduation and retention rates.

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. Be it athletic teams, research groups, 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.

Why do packs of students run towards college graduation faster? I believe that the sooner students develop an academic identity, the sooner they start on their paths towards completion. Identity development occurs in intimate settings between peers, faculty, staff and families. Students learn who they are academically when they are engaged fully with the cultures that surround a particular discipline. This requires authentic teaching and learning primarily at the departmental level.

Authentic teaching and learning is not just about the dissemination and receipt of facts. Authentic teaching occurs when the culture of that discipline is sufficiently internalized so the learner can genuinely accept or reject it. Authentic learning occurs when the learner can operate in spaces where members of that discipline behave. This is why early research experiences between faculty and students are vital.

Retention is about membership. It’s simply harder to leave a community when you’re a member of it. The rites of passage occur most efficiently through mentoring.

Beware of the risk factors that pull students away from the pack and mentoring opportunities. Risk factors include off-campus jobs, social activities disconnected from the campus environment, limited faculty-staff interaction as well as inadequate parental knowledge of college processes.

In addition, universities must honor faculty for their community building efforts. Tenure and promotion processes should reward faculty who transform at-risk students into colleagues. Likewise, faculty must work with student and academic affairs to generate more experiences that groom students into the cultures of the disciplines. To avoid balkanization, faculty and staff must build bridges from their particular silos to campus wide traditions.

I, for one, am signing up for Loyola’s First in the Pack Mentoring Program: “Faculty and staff mentors will work together with undergraduate peer mentors to create a community of support for first-year, first-generation students as they transition from high school to Loyola.” This type of program maximizes the already rich academic experiences of undergraduates. Become a mentor or protégé. Seek out research opportunities or simply make arrangements for acculturation to occur.

The stakes are too high. Staying in the pack requires becoming a member of it. We simply can’t assume matriculation speeches will retain students and consequently, faculty and staff.

Sincerely
Andre Perry, associate director for educational initiatives
  

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