Reclaiming Retention

From time to time, this blog will reflect on customary institutional practices that we might helpfully see anew as we think about equity in STEM fields. In this case, a short item in Chronicle of Higher Education of October 25, 2009, draws our attention to the marginalized situation of retention, an aspect of university operations so remote from most of our classrooms as to be nearly invisible (“Colleges Move to Organize Retention Efforts,” by Beckie Supiano). It may be worth questioning that invisibility, if the correction of minority underrepresentation is our aim.

As the CHE piece reports, the systematic work of retaining students often falls to small units within admissions or diversity offices, and  to part-time or under-budgeted staffs. Retention coordinators and committees may function with few resources and carry little influence. We might add that while STEM policy makers recognize that low retention rates often signal that minorities, in particular, are leaving a school, most universities detach such findings from their assessment of curricular or classroom experiences among underrepresented groups. Orientation, advising, early-warning systems, and tutoring are common approaches to raising retention rates, CHE indicates, but I would add that none of those activities encourage the address of classroom culture or curricular design, which STEM experts also believe contribute to minority departures.

We might see this pattern simply as part of a regrettable but familiar story of neglect of “under-prepared” students, but really to grasp why retention remains peripheral to most universities’ operations, we might consider the meaning of retention relative other institutional functions. First, whether students stay or leave a school after having begun study there may be seen as a follow-up gate-keeping operation, after admission. Science and engineering fields have long naturalized the idea that only the fittest survive.  Students’ lack of fitness for a given program, which we might see objectively simply as a sign of poor fit between a student and existing programming, is instead easily ascribed to shortcomings on the student’s part. This meritocratic logic deters the college or university from looking critically at its services or instructional approach. Second, universities commonly treat the pursuit of increased retention rates as an economizing measure, so that recruitment and enrollment costs will not be “wasted” when a student transfers or drops out.  That reasoning clearly works to help cap spending on retention. It also turns the college away from close study of its educational or social practices, not least by stressing fiscal priorities that make seemingly discretionary matters of inclusion and social justice seem even less pertinent to the matter at hand.