21 February 2012

More on Retention

One of my colleagues made a wonderful point a couple weeks ago about the new drive in our state system for increased retention rates. I wrote before about how this ignores admissions. It also ignores, as she pointed out, the intra-institutional gatekeeping in which many departments engage. A good example at our college is the nursing program. They tend to have near perfect retention/progression/graduation (RPG). Taken out of context, it would seem that Nursing is doing something that Government and Sociology is not; however, unlike sociology, criminal justice, and political science, nursing does not take all comers. Instead, they set extremely high barriers to program acceptance and set caps on program enrollment. Moreover, programs like sociology end up being the dumping ground for the more-selective programs. When a pre-nursing student gets denied entry to the nursing major, she is often explicitly told to be a sociology major because it is "an easy major" or because she "likes people." (My colleagues and I joke that, ironically, sociology is about the most misanthropic discipline there is. We are the Debby Downers of academia.)

Importantly, I am not necessarily arguing that programs like nursing should be less restrictive. I am also not arguing that programs like sociology should be more restrictive. (The faculty in our program had this discussion, and we decided that, as a practice, it was contrary to the perspective of sociology and to our role in the core curriculum at a liberal arts institution.) What I am arguing is that RPG in sociology and nursing should not be conceptualized or measured in the same way. Of course we should demand programs that are highly selective have highly successful outcomes for their students, but we should not expect the same of programs that are non-selective.

It might seem like I am making contradictory claims here: high achieving/selective institutions need not have high retention while high achieving/selective majors should. This points to the divergent perspectives at different levels of the higher ed bureaucracy, though, and not to a flaw in my argument. I'll tackle this issue of major status/disciplinary prestige later.

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