Don’t try this at home! MWG is going to review a book review. We have been busy with non-fiction this summer and we are not sure if we can fit another in. The book in question is The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp. The review is at NRO: Fixing The College-Dropout Problem by James P. Sutton.
First thing we are going to do is change the terminology. If you want to find out about the issue you want to search for retention. Other than perhaps the custodians, everyone at the university is worried about retention. The University of Wisconsin System has a web page for progress and completion as part of the accountability dashboard for the UW System.
We have two problems with the review. One is the conclusion which manages to have two problems in one paragraph. We’ve put each of them in bold:
Kirp has written an important book, highlighting an underreported problem. He’s lifted up the kind of institutions and leaders we need more of: those who leave behind the prestige contests of American meritocracy and quietly work for the common good.
Retention is the most heavily reported underreported problem in some time. We can’t think of a Yogi Berra or Groucho Marx quote but we are sure there is one for this situation. For state institutions, the governor, legislators, university board, university administrators, and faculty all are aware of retention.
We haven’t read the book yet but the second bold item doesn’t make any sense. We don’t want meritocracy? Or is American meritocracy different from regular meritocracy? How do we know what the common good is if it isn’t meritocracy? Can we ever determine what is the common good? And, if so, how do we determine it with regards to retention?
The common good ties into the second problem. What is the optimal retention rate? Often folks seem to imply it should be 100%. We don’t think so and think that retention is much like income inequality. Almost everyone agrees that the Gini coefficient should not be zero or one but it is hard to agree on a correct solution.
As department chair we have been involved in these discussions about grading from both perspectives. First, Faculty X flunked 60 percent of the students. Second, Faculty Z gave no grades below B. Both outcomes are worrisome and difficult. The Faculty Z scenario resonates with many faculty members because they worry that all the concern with retention will lead to even more grade inflation.
We do know that better students are more likely to be retained. You can go to to site we mentioned above on UW retention and try to guess admission standards by retention. You will be pretty close.
Retention rates are like beer: at some point more is not better.
Sidebar: We can do a better job than our undergraduate program where they “motivated” us by saying, “Look at the person on your right and the person on your left. One of the three of you will not be here for graduation.” End Sidebar.
We need to be concerned about retention rates being too high where they devalue the diploma or too low where we waste resources. We need to consider retention in terms of admission standards. Retention rates were low when we taught at open admissions school. One notable student there was a plumber. He was an excellent student but he couldn’t hope to make as much, at least starting out, as an accountant. We asked why he was in school and he said, “I was starting to think like a plumber.”
Everyone should be worried about retention of conservatives but perhaps only conservatives will worry about it. The problem for conservatives is particularly acute because most retention problems come early. Thus, it is a concern for conservative students that students usually spend their first two years in the dorms and studying what we called General Education. Both the dorms and Gen Ed are hotbeds of progressive thought. Perhaps Kirp has a chapter on it but we doubt it.
The real question is can retention be increased while maintaining standards? Given all the emphasis on retention in the past decades we would be shocked if there was much room for improvement while maintaining standards. Still the market produces many miracles so we can hope.