Student Retention: Perspectives from Bogota

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Today I write from Bogota, Colombia, where I presented yesterday at the International Forum on Student Retention in Higher Education, a large conference sponsored by the Ministry of Education of Colombia. We will provide information on this conference as it becomes readily available on the web in the next few weeks.

I was pleased to serve on a panel with Vince Tinto of Syracuse University and Michelle Asha Cooper, the President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). Our assignment was to talk about the foundational issues of student retention and how they mesh with the Ministry’s Vision 2019 plan; a plan in which they aspire to reduce higher education dropouts by 20 percent in the next 10 years, from 45 to 25 percent.

In conversations with these and other speakers, including Mike Kirst of Stanford University and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Terry Ishitani of the University of Memphis (who once lived in Edmonton, by chance!), and Ormond Simpson, formerly of Open University UK, we quickly came to the conclusion that the retention and graduation issues with which we struggle in North America are played out in parallels around the world. Colombia currently has challenges with academic preparation, college knowledge, access to higher education, financial aid, and success through higher education. These, as in North America, are pronounced among low-income and other historically underrepresented populations in higher education.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Cecilia Maria Velez White, the Minister of National Education for Colombia, stated that education is the engine of developing capacity and knowledge and that a primary goal is to improve the standard of living for poor and underprivileged citizens. This is the argument made by many politicians and officials, and they are correct in doing so. But promoting education to such a level and status is difficult work, in any country. I was reminded by my recent talk at the Student Success Conference in Columbus, Ohio, where Deborah S. Delisle, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, described how education was the number one priority of the state. Ohio, as in other states, has made draconian cuts (a half billion in 2008 alone) to their “number one priority.” So, while the argument lives, the actions of public policy officials say much more.

Without doubt, education provides leverage for social promotion, individually and for society as a whole. A more knowledgeable society has the ability to further itself and make itself more competitive in the global economic structure. But policy drives practice. The Vision 2019 document attempts to use policy to drive this change and the achievement of their 25 percent goal.

Upon the conclusion of the Minister’s opening message, Vince Tinto kicked off with his standard and important point: access is not access if we do not give students a reasonable chance of success. Just opening the doors to higher education is not sufficient. In fact, as I rail, it may actually put students at a greater risk due to increasing financial burdens and lost opportunity cost. Vince made the point that any success in Colombia will be the result of a great effort to ensure that the safety nets are in place to help students succeed.

IHEP’s Michelle Cooper provided an overview of policy interventions in various countries focused on the retention of students.  She highlighted policy interventions initiated at the government level and institutional level in four countries – Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States.  She discussed the interventions and policy content of two countries in particular, Australia and the United States.  Examining the structure of their higher education system, rate of non-completion, and commonly cited reasons for student withdrawal (and I thank Michelle for helping me summarize her talking points!).

My comments focused mostly on three questions posed to me in advance, and I’ll quickly summarize.

In response to the aspects that affect Latino students’ access and retention in higher education, I noted that the students targeted in Colombia by Vision 2019, compared to more successful students within their system, are poorer, less educated, less prepared academically and socially, less healthy, and less worldly. They have, for argument sake, less of everything. Does this ring familiar?

For students in Colombia, as in North America, dropout or departure is attributed to some degree to a lack of college-going culture; higher education is unfamiliar to them; as foreign to them as Spanish, unfortunately, is foreign to me.

How does Colombia change direction and improve student retention and graduation rates? My opinion remains that the primary solution to the retention puzzle is ultimately about K-12 education. Until elementary and secondary schools can improve education for students on the lower rungs of the economic and SES ladders, access and success at the postsecondary school will be difficult at best. And this goes back to Vince’s statement: what is access? Ultimately, if K-12 isn’t meaningful, students will not acquire the academic foundation to pursue higher education, nor will they possess the other requisite skills, such as time management, study skills, and other important factors related to higher education success. We focus so much on financial aid, which is an important issue for consideration. But financial aid cannot mask poor academic preparation, no matter the amount of money we through at the problem.

Second, Colombia needs to Change the mindset of higher education to be supportive of students. This is an extraordinarily hard thing to do. Many people in higher education focus on the “higher” part. They do not think college is for everyone or that it is their place to make changes to the system. Failure is part of the system, and those that fail deserve to do so. This argument, of course, ignores the societal concern and responsibility for providing these students and families with those requisite skills for academic and career success. Thus, there needs to be a public and private campaign, instigated through public policy, to change how people view postsecondary access and success in Colombia. In the US, we have been working on this issue for decades, with decent success. We have a long, long way to go, but the current enrollment of two-year institutions suggests we are being successful.

There also needs to be some carrot and stick philosophy. The Ministry needs to provide incentives to institutions to do better in the student success arena. However, incentives to one can be seen as punishment to another if they are not carefully articulated. Incentives work ONLY when there are resources for the institutions, and not unfunded mandates. Incentives for student success are much more complex than most think. All institutions are different, serving various populations and providing different types (and foci) of education. Trying to force this into a metric is difficult, but it can be done.

Finally, I suggested, as did Vince Tinto and Michael Kirst, that there needs to exist SAFETY NET programs to help students swim in the waters of higher education. When enrollment increases in Colombia, we can expect that these new students will be less prepared, on average, than others who have come before. Students need to clearly understand the pathways to success, as do faculty members. This may mean creating programs like we have in the US—TRIO and GEAR UP programs, sponsored by the federal government. These programs provide study skill training, time management, academic support, and help students apply for financial aid. In addition, they provide motivation to prepare and go to college.

In the end, there needs to be much stronger linkages between compulsory (secondary) school, the higher education sector, and business and industry. There are few linkages, and at some point we need to create a better societal map of the place of K-12 and PSE in our structure. Right now, people “just go” to college, without too much sense of what the job market provides. We need to fix that, as do the Colombians.

I’m going to try and enjoy Bogota for one final day before my flight tomorrow, but we may want to look back here in a few years to see if they are attaining the goals of Vision 2019. We all may learn something through the process.

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