I confess.  I was an early adopter of the attainment agenda.

In those days we just called it “student success.”  But, the goals were the same:  attract, retain, and graduate students who will be (as we say at Winthrop) prepared for successful careers, engaged in our democratic society, responsive to local and global concerns, and grounded in values that give meaning to their lives.

That’s it.   And, it doesn’t matter to me who gets credit for starting it – The Lumina Foundation, the Obama Administrationthe Pell Institute, ACE, AASCU, AAC&U, CIC, NACU, me, you, or Jack Maguire.

What matters is that the enrollment management focus on student success evolved to the attainment agenda, and we finally have governmental agencies, higher education organizations, leading foundations, and presidents across the country joining together for collective impact on the higher education attainment rates in our country.

Recently, though, some dedicated academics have started to question the attainment agenda movement.  These people are not CAVE dwellers (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything).  They are my friends – the type of academics who get up every day to do good things for students.   They are concerned because some people are pushing the worthy attainment agenda too far.  For example, the New York Times reports that  Governors in Texas and Florida have challenged their public colleges to deliver a bachelor’s degree for $10,000, which is less than a third of the price of tuition and fees at the average public institution.

So, some of my academic friends are worried that they, too,  will be asked to sacrifice quality to increase affordability.

I share these concerns about sacrificing quality.

A few years ago I created a comprehensive program assessment plan called the QPC Model that is grounded in the proposition that if institutions sacrifice quality to decrease costs (increase affordability), they will also decrease a program’s potential to attract and retain students.   In the long run, sacrificing quality to increase affordability just won’t work.  We have to increase affordability in other ways.

Some of my other academic friends are worried that we will be asked to sacrifice rigor and academic standards in order to promote retention and graduation rates.   These academics take pride in all of their students, from the high-achieving scholars to those who have to overcome significant obstacles to reach their goals.  But still, they are concerned that the attainment agenda could inspire grade inflation or cause even the best among us to dumb down classes to meet retention goals.

I do not share these concerns about focusing on improving retention and graduation rates.

The only universities that would need to sacrifice rigor and academic standards in order to adopt a new focus on higher retention rates are those for whom the primary cause of student attrition is academic failure.

I have checked all the available data and asked around a lot, and I have not identified a single institution whose attrition percentage is substantially composed of students who are academically ineligible to return.

Instead, I have found that most other institutions are a lot like my own.  Consider that at Winthrop – an institution consistently ranked as one of the Top 10 master’s comprehensive universities in the South – for Fall 2012, 61 (5.3%) of our first time students were suspended at the end of Spring 2013.  However, 260 (22.7%) were academically eligible to return but did not return for Fall 2013.

Our freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate of 72% is higher than the national average of 66.8% for comprehensive universities, in large part because we already follow best practices for student engagement and academic success programs.   Still, I have established a five-year goal to raise that retention rate to 80%.  I am certain that we can do it without sacrificing quality.

I am sorry that we lost 61 students for academic reasons.  And, I worry about how much of that was due to student effort, student ability, or our effort and ability to help them succeed, despite the strong set of student success programs we have in place.

However, most of my focus is on the 260 students who could have returned but chose not to do so.

Why did they leave?

Our surveys show that students leave for a myriad of reasons, including: we don’t offer the program they want; they aren’t getting enough playing time on the ball field; they want to be closer to home; their girlfriend goes to _________; and, my personal favorite, “I want to be more anonymous. At Winthrop, everybody knows my name.”

No retention initiative we dream up could compete with those reasons for transferring to another institution.  And, beyond making sure there are no systemic issues to address, we don’t even try.    I am just glad those students found a place that is right for them and that they will hopefully complete their degree.

Although some of the reasons students transfer to other institutions are fuel for jokes around the conference room table, the most often cited reason students don’t return to campus isn’t funny at all.   In fact, it is something that demands our most serious effort.

The number one reason students don’t return to our university – and probably most universities like ours– has very little to do with their choices.  These wonderful students report that they simply cannot afford to stay in school.

And, that is a loss of human potential that I cannot abide.

The low academic suspension numbers, coupled with the attrition survey data, show that promoting the next level of progress in retention rates and degree attainment will not require dumbing down academic quality.   Instead, for public institutions that already follow best practices for student engagement and academic services, promoting the next level of progress for improvement in retention rates and degree attainment will require an unprecedented focus on increasing affordability.

That is, to fully support the attainment agenda, we must find ways to make college more affordable for our students.

It will take a three-pronged effort:

First, we must implore our friends in the Legislature to restore state funding based on the impact our programs provide.

Second, we must adopt administrative efficiencies and otherwise work to reduce our “expense per student FTE” and reduce students’ “time to degree,” while at the same time supporting salary increases, instructional and student engagement programs, and quality across the board.

And, third, we also must offer additional need-based scholarships.

If we are truly dedicated to promoting access to high-quality education regardless of socio-economic class, then the attainment goal isn’t the enemy of quality. Instead, the attainment goal is actually our friend – the motivating factor for us to steadfastly maintain quality and galvanize our efforts to cultivate more need-based financial aid for our students.

Jamie Comstock Williamson

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One Response to Attainment Agenda Not the Enemy of Quality, but the Friend of Affordability

  1. Nik Bramblett says:

    I’m a graduate student at Winthrop, and I’m ASTOUNDED at how expensive it is. The MLA program here, for example, is 33 hours at (currently) $540 an hour or something like that. To be sure, it’s an excellent program, and I consider myself very fortunate to have such an outstanding school practically right in my back yard. However, for comparison, the MLS degree at Rollins College, my undergrad alma mater, is 32 hours at $465 an hour. And that’s well known to be a ‘snooty, elitist’ private school.

    In addition to the base tuition being lower, the state of Florida offers a ‘resident access grant’ to in-state attendees of private schools, with the reasoning that the student is not costing the state a large subsidy to the tuition of a state school (in 2005, the last year that I’m specifically aware about), that subsidy was about $9000 a year. I daresay that the ‘subsidy’ to in-state tuition in SC is significantly less than $9000 a year.)

    Of the three stratagies you mention, I strenuously advocate for the first. Just incidentaly, regarding that third strategy: my GRE scores are all at 90th %ile or higher. My BA was 0.02% below SCL; my previous graduate work was all performed at a remarkably high level of excellence. I am poor. I was awarded scholarship money from the graduate school here: $250 a term. That’s somewhat less than $30 an hour for a fulltime courseload. That’s almost as insulting as the recent news I received from the state that they were reducing my SNAP to $36 a month.

    It is crucial that a message is broadcast far and wide that people are much more important than short-term profits.

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