Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not Coming Back for More?

According to ACT, Inc (Midwestern counterpart to the SAT), the number of college freshmen returning for a second year at their original "4-year" institution is on the decline.

Shocking, I know... (Ok, I'm being ironic-- I wrote a dissertation about the "swirling" students who attend multiple schools, and have been quite vocal about the importance of mobility to debates over student success and degree completion.)

Approximately 2/3 of students who enter 4-year colleges stick around for another year. That number used to be (somewhat) higher (closer to 70-75%). Something to get worked up about? Depends on how you approach the question.

If you're a higher ed administrator focused on dollars and cents, sure you're not going to like it. Fewer returning students means more empty seats in upper-level courses, which you should but probably aren't filling with transfer students. It also means your institutional degree completion rates are lower.

If you're an educational reformer focused on student success, you probably see things differently. Before getting upset, you'd first want to know: Are students leaving school 1 to drop out of college? Or do they move to school 2, find a better fit (financially, academically, socially?) and end up with a degree? Are students moving because moving is a fact of their life, they've always been mobile, and they're not attached to colleges in the "traditional" sense of one student/one school? Or, are schools serving them poorly, eventually encouraging their departure?

My own work has identified some causes for concern. Students do not change schools in equitable ways-- meaning that the more advantaged kids tend to leave one 4-year college for another, and not suffer much in terms of BA completion, while the less advantaged (read: lower levels of parental education) tend to leave 4-year colleges after struggling academically in their first year (this is NET of high school prep, btw), and end up at a community college. Those folks hardly ever get degrees. All of this is described in my 2006 paper in Sociology of Education, and a forthcoming paper in the same journal.

The ACT folks say the trend "suggests that more students may be opting out of college during or after their first year." First, as a sociologist let me gag openly at the idea of "opting out." Second, having not accounted for changes in the composition of college freshmen that could account for changes in retention rates, it's not clear what we do with this trend.

From a research perspective, we should also ask why we're stuck with ACT data on this one-- they aren't capturing enrollment beyond school 1 (as we can with national datasets such as the NELS) and so can't dig underneath the trendlines. Why are we stuck? Because the kind of longitudinal student unit record data we'd need to do the analysis is only collected by the feds every 10 or so years-- hard to establish much of a trend with that. If you just compare NLS-72, HSB, and NELS, it doesn't look like much of a trend... More micro, more interesting.

So we're left with a bunch of hypotheses, for now. The ACT guy thinks students leave 4-year colleges for financial reasons. Maybe. My own analyses suggest that family income doesn't have much to do with it though. We can sort of test this in my study, by estimating a causal effect of financial aid on first year retention. With the first cohort of kids in the middle of the school year right now, you'll have to bear with me... I'll try to find the answers.

In the meantime, let's get focused on whether and when students graduate. Not where they finish. That is: a student-focused rather than school-focused approach to success. Whaddya say?

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