Athletes, Enrollment, and Retention

It’s becoming more and more clear that the way we have thought about retention in the past is just too simplistic. Too often we use terms like “levers” or “buttons” in suggesting that if we could only identify the right thing to change, then retention would improve. However, when we don’t take the time to fully match our metaphor to the complexity of our circumstances, we run the real risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little improvement. For example, if we like the idea of one or more “levers” that we think we can move to systematically impact our retention rate, our metaphor can’t assume that the levers under our control are independent from each other. As we all know, the educational endeavor in which we are involved is much too complex. For our metaphor to be accurate (and therefore useful in identifying a course of action that has the best chance of producing positive results), we have to understand that each lever over which we have control is welded to other levers. In essence, moving one lever will automatically re-position others that also affect the long-term health of the college.

One example of this complexity became more apparent recently as we were examining our retention data among athletes.  Over the years we’ve found that typical first-to-second year retention rates among students who self-report as athletes are higher than our college average, and four, five, and six year graduation rates of athletes don’t differ between athletes and non-athletes. However, in digging a little deeper we found that about 45% of the students who left during the 2012 school year (a subset of the all the students who leave sometime between their first and second fall terms) started that academic year as athletes, a much higher proportion than the overall percentage of students who identify as athletes at the end of the year (about 30%). Unlike prior retention analysis where we used student self-reports of athletic status, for this analysis we looked at all of the students who were listed on all sports team’s initial rosters – including all the students who quit their sport before the end of the season and therefore didn’t report themselves as athletes on the end-of-the-year survey.

At first, one might think that this is a problem for athletics to solve (stereotypes of the hard-nosed dictator/coach chasing off less capable athletes might come to mind). However, further exploration exposes the degree to which our levers are welded together. You’ll forgive me if I borrow from my decade of experience in college athletics here to make my point.

It is no secret that our investment in athletics is, at least in part, based on the reality that athletic opportunity is a potent enrollment draw.  Our coaches play a significant role in encouraging perspective students to come to Augustana, both by initiating recruiting relationships and by offering opportunities to those students who inquire. This is clearly evident in the size of many of our sports’ initial rosters; especially among men’s sports. However, in the same way that the student-faculty ratio matters in creating a high touch, personalized college experience, the athlete-coach ratio matters too.  Large rosters can make it more difficult for a coach to connect with each player. And especially among younger athletes who may have less opportunity to compete due to the presence of older, more skilled players, this can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt that sometimes produce a decision to leave the team – and even the college. In the end, the way that we are using one lever (athletics) to meet enrollment goals may be increasing the likelihood of attrition among a certain subset of students.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we change anything.  Instead, given the the number of sports we offer and the way that we current organize our athletics programs, I am simply pointing out an example in which a lever we use quite effectively to meet one goal (enrollment) might well be creating an obstacle that limits our ability to meet another goal (retention).  I suppose one could argue that we should consider offering an additional sport or two so that athletics could still recruit the same overall number of students while reducing the average roster size of the individual sports. However, that depends on whether the increased costs of an additional sport (salaries, facilities, operating funds) would be offset by a potential increase in retention of students who came to Augustana with the intention of playing a sport. Obviously this is a pretty sticky question without a clear answer.

Again, my point here is only to highlight a trade-off – one that might be entirely legitimate – where we meet one set of goals in a way that potentially increases the difficulty of meeting another set of goals. Optimizing our retention rate is about finding our sweet spot. It’s not just about moving individual levers. That is what makes it so incredibly challenging – especially when we are trying to squeeze the last drops of optimizing out of something that we already do comparatively pretty well.

Make it a good day.  And enjoy the holiday.

Mark

The Fallacy of Matching Majors with Careers

It seems that most of the talk in recent months about the ROI (return on investment) of a college degree from a given institution has been focused on the degree to which new graduates from that institution can get well-paying jobs related to their major.  For liberal arts colleges and those of us who believe in the importance of a well-rounded education, the whole idea of assuming an inherent connection between major choice and career seems problematic.  Not only are there plenty of majors that don’t have a natural correlate on the job market (e.g., philosophy majors come to mind), but we are also regularly bombarded with the claims that individuals in today’s world will hold multiple jobs in multiple professions over the course of their working careers. Thus it seems odd to suggest that a college’s effectiveness could be pinned to the proportion of graduates who have landed jobs in their field within six months of graduation.

One data point from our survey of recent graduates seems to highlight this conundrum. Nine months after a class of seniors graduates, we ask them to complete a survey that asks a variety of questions about their current status, the degree to which their Augustana experience helped prepare them for their present circumstance, and the degree to which they believe that they are on the right long-term path.

One of the questions we asked our 2012 graduates last spring (about nine months after they had received their BA degrees from Augustana) was:

“Have your long-term professional goals changed since you graduated from Augie?”

The distribution of responses was revealing.

Not at all

48%

A little

21%

Somewhat

20%

Substantial

4%

Completely

3%

In other words, fewer than 50% of the 2012 graduating class considered themselves on the exact same long-term path that they were on when they walked across the stage to collect their diplomas.  In addition, over a quarter of the respondents said that their long-term goals had changed “somewhat,” “substantially,” or “completely.”

I believe the result of this single question holds critical implications for our efforts to best prepare our students to succeed after college.  First of all, this finding supports what we already know to be true – many of our students are going to change their long-term goals during their first several years after graduation. This is what happens to young people during their first foray into the world of working adulthood. We would be foolish to tie ourselves too tightly to a data point that doesn’t allow for these natural developments in the life a young adult.

Second, rather than mere job or graduate school placement, we would be smart to begin thinking about our students’ post-graduate success in terms of direction and momentum. Our students need to develop a clear sense of direction in order to decide what the best “next step” is for them. In addition, our job is to help them know when to take that “next step,” whether it be getting into the right graduate school or finding the right job or taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will better position them to move in the direction they have chosen for themselves. If we can do that, then no matter what happens to our students in the years after they graduate, they will be better able to succeed in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.

In concert with a sense of direction, our students need momentum.  This momentum should be self-perpetuating, cultivated by the right mix of motivations to handle setbacks and success. More importantly, it needs to be strong enough to thrive in the midst of a change in direction. This means that we develop their ability to be autonomous while holding themselves to high standards.  It means that they know how to be strategic in staying true to themselves and their goals no matter the distractions that might appear.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about our students’ success in applying to graduate school or entry-level jobs in a given profession. On the contrary, we absolutely should care about statistics like these – especially if they support a student’s chosen direction and momentum.  But we should remember that a successful life isn’t etched in stone upon graduation from college.  And we should have the courage to track our students’ life trajectory in a way that doesn’t limit both us and them.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

How does student learning happen?

Since it’s finals week, I’ll be quick.  However, I hope you’ll take some time to think about this little tidbit below as our strategic planning conversations address examine how we are going to make sure that every student develops the ability to integrate ideas to solve complex problems.

I saw George Kuh give a talk on Saturday afternoon in which he showed the following cartoon.  Even though the whole audience found it funny, the point he was trying to make about the degree to which we often fail to ensure that students learn what we say we teach them was dead serious.

We claim that a liberal arts education teaches students how to integrate disparate ideas from a wide range of disciplines and contexts to solve complex 21st century problems.  At the same time, however, the experiences we require are specific to individual disciplines or topics while the truly integrative experiences remain optional add-ons . . . if they exist at all outside of the major.

So the question I’d ask you to think about is this:  How do we know that every student participates in a rigorously designed activity that explicitly develops the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple fields of study to solve substantive, complex problems? And how could we design a college experience where we could demonstrate that every student participated in such an activity?

Make it a good day.  And have a great fall break.

Mark