I've spent quite a lot of time over the past 6 years (the span of my administrative career) thinking about retention. I've studied it, built programs to improve it, and talked about it. From the perspective of higher ed retention is a good thing. Retention is important for students, especially if its opposite is dropping out of college, missing out on opportunities, and ending up on the outside of the economic system. And in the economic downturn, the ability for a private school like Westminster to retain its students is vital to the school's survival.
Earlier this week I spent an hour in a webinar about a software system that would allow schools to track data better in order to understand who is retained. Once we determine the characteristics of the retained student, we can build programs to retain the others, the software sellers proclaimed.
That same day I spent a couple of hours on the phone with my daughter, who halfway through her first semester at a small private liberal arts college in California, is as unhappy as I have ever seen her. She is uncertain about her major, isolated in her classes and her dorm, and lonely, despondent.
That school (which I won't name because I don't think it is a problem with the school itself) has the whole retention apparatus--freshman seminars, residence assistants, an advising center, and a culture committed to student well-being. But those things may as well not exist for Amelia.
Why? Because she doesn't want to go to the counseling center, or talk to her RA. She is afraid that by doing so she will be branded as a loser. But even more, because she will probably be retained. Certainly the signs all point to retention. She is getting A's in her classes. She comes from a family that values education. Finances are tight, but not a crisis. So she appears not to be "at-risk."
So what this means is that she is invisible to the school. She feels that way--that she has no friends in her classes or her dorm. That she is, ultimately, alone.
Ivan Illich, in an interview in Jerry Brown's book Dialogues, argues that the most important parts of being human--love, care, help, health, learning, politics--have become so systematized that their human component has been lost. All we can do, he says, is develop friendship, because by developing friendships we might find ways to re-inject human connection into the systems that have chased it out.
His words are ringing in my head as I talk to Amelia. For her, right now, all of the systems are useless because she has no friends.
How would colleges be different if they measured the success of their first year not by retention rates but by friendships made. I'm not talking about Facebook-style friendships, or sorority friendships, or hook-ups. I'm talking about real friendships, the kind that are at the basis of argument, and love, and compassion, and learning.
I would guess our friendship rates are well below retention rates. As educators and institutions we know much less about how to be human together than we do about erecting systems. But as I think about my friendships, and the holes where they should exist, I would much rather be-friend than retain.