A Philosopher's Blog

Mount St. Mary’s University III: Drowning Bunnies & Retention

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2016

While students have long been concerned about their grade points, colleges and universities have become enthralled by numbers. Many state schools, such as my own Florida A&M University, are being held hostage by numbers—they have been locked into the death match of number driven performance based funding. Even private, non-profit schools have fallen victim to number obsession. One rather unfortunate recent example involves Mount St. Mary’s University.

President Simon Newman devised a plan to improve the school’s retention rate by culling students before the federal reporting deadline. The plan was to get students to complete a survey described as a “valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself.” In reality, the survey was intended to identify the students to be culled. In response to some resistance to the plan, Newman responded by saying “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

While Newman’s proposed solution and its fallout proved to be a disaster for the university, schools do need to address the problem of retention. For all schools, improving retention is important for improving the reputation and status of the school. This applies both to how the school is ranked and how the school is perceived by prospective students and their parents. For many public schools, improving retention is important for maintaining or improving their funding from the state. Many states have adopted punishing performance based funding systems such that schools are forced to fight to avoid being the victims of funding cuts. There is also the matter of the students—retaining students so that they graduate is certainly beneficial to these students. After all, students leaving school and having little to show for it other than debt is not good for anyone.

There are various ways to approach the problem of retention. One approach, which was the general plan of Newman, is to cull the students who are least likely to be retained. If successful, this will improve the school’s numbers. While this approach seems harsh, it can be defended. An obvious defense is that schools already use a culling process, specifically the application process. In this case, the “bunnies” are drowned before they even get to the gates of the school. Another defense is to draw an analogy to sports. Many teams have both a varsity and junior varsity. Athletes compete to be on the varsity team and sometimes even to remain on the team. This, it can be argued, is the nature of competitive activities. Since schools are in competition, they can be looked at as analogous to sports teams: they need to have the best players they can get in order to improve their performance in the competition for status and funds. As such, the numbers are improved because poor performers are removed from the herd.

This approach does raise numerous concerns about having a competition model in education, especially in regards to funding for public institutions. One concern is that such an approach will abandon students from the lower economic classes—there is, after all, a strong causal link between the economic class of students and their retention and graduation rates. One obvious reason is that poorer students have less resources to pay for school and need to spend more time working. Another concern is with the methods that would be used to cull the students after they have been accepted. After all, the goal of such a culling is to be rid of them before they damage the numbers; so the culling process needs to predict performance rather than be based upon it. As such, the culling could easily prove to be unfair.

A second approach is to improve the pre-culling of students. My university has had the traditional role of offering opportunity to students who otherwise would not have such opportunities. This, not surprisingly, results in lower retention and graduation numbers relative to schools that focus on admitting those most likely to succeed (usually people from the middle and upper economic classes). It has been recommended that our approach be replaced with stricter admission requirements, thus abandoning many potential students. While this would have the benefit of improving the school’s numbers, it would have the serious disadvantage of denying many potential students the chance to succeed. These students would generally be from the lower income classes, thus helping to perpetuate poverty.  As such, pre-and post-admission culling have the same sort of problems.

An alternative to culling is to strengthen the students. That is, focus on improving the students’ chances of remaining in school and succeeding. This would bring up the numbers by improving performance. To use a sports analogy, this would be like a team that focused on training its athletes to be better rather than focusing on getting rid of the athletes that did not perform as well. One major downside to this approach is that it would require expending resources: lower income students would need more financial support, students who are less well prepared (who are often lower income) would need extra help, and so on. Since many schools have either embraced the business model or have had state legislatures ram it down their throats (to use one of Marco Rubio’s favorite lines), it is not surprising that this approach is less favored. After all, it is cheaper to pre-cull and cull than it is to provide broad opportunity for success.

A reasonable response to concerns about opportunity is to argue that it is better to use the limited resources for students who are more likely to succeed rather than waste them on students who are likely to fail. While this does have considerable merit, there is still the moral concern regarding denying opportunity in the name of economy. That said, it is certainly reasonable and rational to consider how resources should be best used.

My own view is that in a country as wealthy as the United States, schools should err on the side of opportunity. In addition to the usually “left” arguments about equality and justice, there is also a solid conservative argument: while some money will be “wasted” on students who are not retained, the return on investments in retention should pay off handsomely in terms of improved income, reduced crime, and enhanced opportunities. That is, in the long term the cost of investing in education will be far less than the cost of not doing so.


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5 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on February 15, 2016 at 9:49 am

    I have never understood why retention rate is considered important for a university’s ranking.

    As Mike points out, this metric ends up punishing his university for giving opportunities to those on the bottom of the economic scale.

    This is simply wrong. Who created this metric and how do we change it?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 15, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      To be fair, there is some merit to considering retention. To use an analogy, think of the cure rate of a hospital. That is certainly a number worth considering and the assumption would tend to be that this is how good the hospital is at treating people. But, if a hospital focuses primarily on screening patients to admit those most likely to be cured rather than on improving treatment, then there is a problem. Likewise, “good retention” is supposed to be a matter of doing education well so that people who have the ability and skill are able to get through. “bad retention” would be focusing primarily on getting safe admits.

      You do point to a real challenge: how to create a metric that distinguishes between retention through pre-culling and retention that focuses on doing a good job of providing an opportunity for success. While it makes sense for pro-teams and businesses to focus heavily on pre-culling, public education should be about creating opportunities-if only out of self-interest (less crime, better citizens, better workers, more income for growing the economy, etc.). This is consistent with their being “elite” schools that pre-cull and cull, but that should probably be more the domain of private, non-profit schools.

      There is the problem of maintaining educational integrity: people should have a fair shot at success, but it should not become a diploma mill.

      • TJB said, on February 16, 2016 at 3:12 pm

        “Likewise, “good retention” is supposed to be a matter of doing education well so that people who have the ability and skill are able to get through. “bad retention” would be focusing primarily on getting safe admits.”

        Couldn’t “good retention” also mean that the students are getting all A’s while still managing to party 5 nights out of 7?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 16, 2016 at 6:49 pm

          Depends on what they are doing to get those A’s. When I was a student, I knew a few people who could party all week, yet still pull off excellent grades. But, if A’s are just be handed out like participation medals, then that is bad retention. Ideally, classes should be hard enough so that the grades are earned and students learn what they really need to learn. Good retention would, I think, focus mainly on good advising, academic support (like tutoring), and financial support for low-income students.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 15, 2016 at 10:49 am

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