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August 24, 2002 [feather]
In my last blog, I

In my last blog, I wrote about the role of liability in the increasingly elaborate structure of college orientation. Today, I will turn to retention. Colleges are rightly afraid of lawsuits; they are also rightly afraid of attrition, which annually claims a significant chunk of any given entering freshman class.

In a 1995 article entitled "New Programs for Freshmen Smooth Transition to College Life" (subscribers only), The Chronicle of Higher Education described how high freshman drop-out rates at large state schools were becoming the impetus for elaborate orientation and mentoring programs. The article describes how Ohio State tried to personalize the first-year experience by assigning students to live in small "clusters" of twenty students. With 42,000 undergraduates, this was Ohio State's attempt to create feelings of connection and community among incoming freshmen. The story also tells how, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, faculty and administrators phone new students after the third week of classes to see how they are doing. According to the director of UC-Boulder's First Year Experience office, "The students might be experiencing a dip or the luster might be wearing off ... This says to the student, 'We care about your experience here.'" Boulder also launched an online chat group for freshman at this time, also with the idea of fostering connection in a large impersonal environment. Such schools were not outliers. By the mid-90's, 2/3 of all colleges were offering semester-long courses on adjusting to college. Subject material typically included such issues as career planning, study skills, date rape, alcohol awareness, and computer literacy.

In 1994, 33% of all college freshman dropped out--the highest dropout rate since the early 1980s. Studies showed that these students were not, by and large, flunking out. Academically, they could have stayed in school. But they didn't. The theory was--and remains--that what drove these students out of college was alienation, a sense of not belonging. Hence the increasingly elaborate orientational programming offered by state and private schools alike, which often extends long past welcome week and sometimes even lasts the entire first year. North Carolina State spent $200,000 to hire freshman counselors in 1995, and projected that their annual freshman experience budget could well reach $1 million within a few more years. That's a lot of money--but NC State invested it, figuring that when their retention numbers improved, the state legislature would increase their funding to cover the costs of its expanded programming. (I have not yet checked to see whether that prediction has come true.)

The nature of orientation's ongoing elaboration tells us a great deal about what schools believe new students need in order to become part of the campus community. It also tells us about what schools imagine "the campus community" is--or ought to be. As anyone who has set foot on a campus in recent years can tell you, the most important thing a campus can be these days is "diverse." Nothing is more important than diversity. Not academics, not even athletics. "Diversity," in turn, is a buzzword for a particular kind of demographic variety: campus diversity has nothing to do with ideas, and does not extend to differing philosophical, religious, or political views. Instead, it refers to the percentage of students and faculty who are not white, not male, and not heterosexual. That's what counts, and that's where the money is.

There has been much discussion in the news of late about the acrobatic lengths to which some college admissions boards will go in order to enroll properly "diverse" freshman classes. California state schools are arguably the most gymnastic in the nation, having used "diversity" with great success as a rationale for circumventing both the SAT (bad, biased test!) and Proposition 209, which outlawed racial preferences in admissions at all California State Schools. But there has been less discussion about what the ideal of diversity means once students are actually enrolled. In practice, it means scrambling to retain minority students, who are far, far more likely to drop out than their white counterparts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2002 "Condition of Education" report, 63% of high school graduates go straight on to college (as compared to 49% in 1972). 66% of white students go straight from high school to college, while only 55% of black students and about 50% of Hispanic students do. The numbers have improved for black students over time--only 38% of black high school grads were going right on to college in 1983. But the numbers have stayed largely the same for Hispanic students, hovering around 50% since 1972. Those numbers are correlated with income--the higher the family income, the more likely students are to go to college. The numbers are also correlated with the quality of secondary school education--college-qualified low and middle income students who applied are as likely as wealthy students to enroll in college within 2 years of graduation (83 and 82% respectively). Those who took rigorous courseloads in high school have much better chances of making it through college to graduation.

What this means for college demographics: In 1999-2000, 68% of all college students were white, 13% were black, 12% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% were Native American/Alaska native. Of all college students, 43% were 24 or older. And 56% of all undergrads were women. Projections indicate that that number is likely to be around 66% by the end of the decade.

What this means for the education level and earning capacity of the present generation of young adults: As of 2001, 29% of all 25-29 year-olds had a B.A., up from 17% in 1971. About 35% of all white students between 25 and 29 had B.A.'s, just under 20% of all blacks did, and about 10% of Hispanics did.

Things are better for non-white students than they used to be, but they could be a lot better (they could be better for white students, too, to be frank, especially the men--but that's another blog). Hence the elaborate efforts colleges are making to attract, admit, retain, and graduate students of color. Affirmative action has helped a great deal with the admissions part of the equation. But retaining and graduating students of color continues to elude even schools that are trying their hardest to do so. Whereas 84% of white students enrolling at Berkeley between 1987 and 1990 graduated within six years, only 58% of black students and 67% of Hispanics did. As of the late 90s, the national black dropout rate was 60%; at elite schools, it was 25%--better, but still not great.

The solution: ever more programming for minority students; ever more funding for ethnic studies departments; elaborate racial harassment policies; expanded minority hiring; increasingly creative admissions policies; and even scientific study. The Ford Foundation, for example, has sunk $620,000 into a study of new admissions policies in Texas, where the 1996 Hopwood ruling outlawed affirmative action. The Mellon Foundation has put $300,000 toward a study of the place of Hispanics in higher education.

The minority orientation occupies a special place within the complex problematic of student retention. At once a tool of socialization and a means of producing an asocial--or even anti-social--separatism, minority orientation is a paradigmatic moment in the phenomenon that so many colleges have come to call "the freshman experience." It sets the tone for the college years, defining and delimiting the kind of community that schools imagine is necessary for minority retention even as it creates and sustains attitudes and patterns that pose serious problems for minority retention.

More on minority orientation soon.

posted on August 24, 2002 9:00 AM