By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
Two weeks ago hundreds of us converged on San Antonio for Retention 2007, our second annual international conference on student retention. This year’s event doubled the attendance from 2006, and we’re anticipating a much larger crowd next May in San Diego. Beyond the collective sigh of relief from our staff that we can put “R7,” as we called it in office, to bed for a while and recharge our batteries, this was an exceptional event.
Retention 2007 started with an address from Raymund Paredes, the Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Texas, who suggested it was both horrific and unconscionable that we allow students into higher education without ensuring that they have a chance to succeed. I’ve said this for years, but Dr. Paredes was perhaps more direct in his delivery. And he’s absolutely right: public policy needs to ensure that the public systems of secondary and postsecondary education better serve our students, because for many, they simple don’t cut it once they gain access to the postsecondary level. We can save “lives” in PSE, but there is, ultimately, only so much triage that can be performed by staff and faculty.
This takes us back to the ongoing discussion about high school graduation rates as of late. Although the numbers are arguable and in some cases suspect, the national graduation rate of 9th graders to high school graduation is about 70 percent, give or take about 5 percent. This is, of course, the average. And as Dr. Paredes will tell you, it isn’t near that high in many areas of the country. For instance, according to data collected and distributed by NCHEMS, South Carolina has a 52 percent graduation rate; that is, half of their students don’t even complete high school. We’re not even talking about college, yet.
This is a serious issue that we simply aren’t addressing in public policy at the local, state, or federal level. Yes, the Bush Administration enacted the No Child Left Behind Act in late 2001, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus that NCLB hasn’t worked. So what else is being done to change how we structure our education systems and improve education in America (and certainly South Carolina!)? Almost nothing. I’m sure I’ll get a few emails about new initiatives and some stuff going on somewhere. But these are aberrations in a system that is faulty to an extreme. We are doing as little as possible to improve education in America, which is interesting because the US puts boat loads of money into educational research and practice compared to other countries. Perhaps our “problems” are just more extreme than other G8 countries, but I don’t think so.
Most of the focus at Retention 2007, of course, was on postsecondary retention. Our presidential panel of Diana Natalicio (UT-El Paso), Roseann Runte (Old Dominion University), and Cha Guzman (Palo Alto College) was certainly a highlight of the conference. Each of these outstanding leaders shared their thoughts on the challenges of improving student success at their campuses. Dr. Guzman noted that simply talking to students was important. Showing them that they matter and engaging them on campus has made a huge difference. All noted that involving faculty was a critical element, and that faculty must understand that they are the critical lynchpin for student engagement and success. Making that happen is more difficult.
Cliff Adelman told the crowd during his luncheon speech that there is no simple retention plan or strategy for students because they’re all over the place–coming in, going out—so it’s difficult to point to one strategy to make success. Cliff later received our Lifetime Achievement Award for his efforts in higher education.
We were pleased to award Youngstown State University in Ohio our Annual Student Retention Program Award for their outstanding commitment to student success. Jonelle Beatrice and Pat Shively of YSU were on hand to accept the award and gave one of the best presentations of the conference. Congratulations to them.
Sarita Brown gave an impassioned address about the work of her organization, Excelencia! in Education, and the importance of getting Latino students to and through college. And finally, John Brooks Slaughter, the president of NACME, delivered the closing address on the impact of affirmative action and importance of getting students of color into college, especially into engineering and other hard sciences. As Dr. Slaughter described, doing this is our pathway to global competiveness, and not doing so will be our downfall.
It was a fabulous event, and we’re pleased that so many attendees enjoyed the experience. We hope to see everyone next year in San Diego. Please visit our events site to view PowerPoint from this year’s session.