We have all had conversations with struggling students, suggesting to them that…well maybe dropping out of a class may be a wise choice. On some occasions it would be unethical to counsel otherwise.
But what if such conversations are encouraged as policy, early in the semester, as part of a strategy to boost graduation efficiency? That's the issue raised by recent comments from Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary's University of Maryland, as reported by Katherine Mangan in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
This is one of those stories that cries out for context. Please read the whole piece. However, Mr. Newman employed language that is definitely making the rounds right now:
Few people at Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland would disagree that too many students are dropping out in the first year, but the president’s suggestion that faculty members stop treating them as "cuddly bunnies" and "drown the bunnies" instead has many fuming.
First, let's note that schools such as St. Mary's rely heavily upon private tuition, funded largely with student loans. The president's strategy involved identifying at-risk students early, encouraging faculty members to conduct a "come to Jesus" meeting with those who are struggling:
"Maybe they want to join the Army or go to a community college first," said Mr. Newman, a private-equity chief executive officer and entrepreneur who became president of the Roman Catholic university last year. "It’s immoral to have them take on debt doing something they don’t want to do."
This presents an interesting question—one that reverberates through all higher education institutions, including community colleges. It is one thing for individual teachers to give painful advice to individual students, and quite another to organize such conversations institutionally.
Consider the raw numbers, or in this case, fractions. If the number of graduates is the numerator, and the number of enrolled students is the denominator, one way to increase the graduation rate is to raise the value of the numerator. But another is to shrink the denominator, to increase the odds of success.
We may be doing this inadvertently with policies that place students with extremely low test scores into Adult Basic Education, rather than Developmental Education.