To the Editor,
I graduated from the Mount this past May 2015, and since then have been blessed with the opportunity to work in the President’s Office. Over the past few months I have seen and heard a number of negative remarks made about the President and this administration by a handful of students, faculty, and alumni. At first I viewed these comments as distractions from people who do not know all the facts and want to push a personal agenda. However, the mischaracterizations have gotten out of hand and reached a level that I didn’t think was possible at a place that prides itself on truth and community. As someone who was just in the classroom and has now worked on a number of initiatives directly with the President, I want to share my perspective on our President and the “retention initiative” events as they unfolded. Additionally I want to share some key facts and statistics relating to retention. I would like to note that I was not asked to produce this piece by anyone, but feel compelled to defend my name and work as one of the creators of the freshman survey and members in the Mount’s retention initiative.
When I was hired in May the President outlined a few projects that he thought I could help with. Included among them were the admissions process and student retention/graduation. These two areas are highly connected, as the academic and social fit of the incoming student with the University is correlated with their likelihood of success. This correlation is not unique to the Mount, and is a challenge many universities are grappling with.
At the Mount, our admissions process is evolving. Like many universities, the Mount’s real insight into a student via the admission process is limited. As a result of this, a number of mismatched students end up attending the Mount each year, many of whom would be better off and happier elsewhere. As a former student, I witnessed many mismatched students, my classmates, transfer or drop out.
More evidence of this problem was given to President Newman over the summer during his meetings with the faculty. President Newman asked the faculty what the classroom dynamic was like and heard almost unanimously that in every class there were a handful of students who truly didn’t care to do their work or show up to class regularly. As someone who was in the classroom for the last 4 years, I wholeheartedly agree with this evaluation. It is not the typical Mount student, but a handful do exist.
Mismatched students are one factor that lower retention and graduation rates. While the Mount’s retention and graduation rates are above the national average, they are trending down. Last year saw significant drops in both sophomore retention and graduation, to the lowest levels I have seen on record, clear signs that the Mount needs to improve. These rates are incredibly important, most people would be shocked to know that they are weighted more heavily by the US News college rankings than anything else, including academic reputation.
Here is why US News weighs it so heavily. First, it is one of the best indicators of student satisfaction (Schreiner 3). If students dislike the experience, they drop out or transfer. Second, the effect of getting only some education and not finishing the degree is devastating. In addition to never getting the earnings that come with a degree, non-completers are burdened with thousands of dollars of debt which they struggle to repay. Since student loans cannot be erased through bankruptcy, the people who have some college are often set back financially for many years (Korn). This past September, during my retention presentation to the board of trustees, I noted that the Mount currently charges well over $1.3 million to students that drop out or are academically dismissed each and every year, not including transfers. In many cases this becomes student debt. As a former student, this greatly upsets me.
In light of all the retention information which was shared with President Newman, we began working on a plan to increase our retention and graduation rates. There were two main components of the plan. First, we aimed to increase satisfaction and engagement on campus. To do this, the President met with current students in a series of forums. President Newman is incredibly interested to find out what students want (like shortening the core curriculum) and following through with meaningful change. In addition to improving the core, other improvements like the Cambridge exchange, town hall meetings, Starbucks, renovated lounges, HBO Go, and new classrooms were all built around the President’s vision of better serving our students. I am incredibly excited by all of these, but more so by the fact that there is SO much more to come.
Retention Program, Fall 2015
The second component of the initiative is to modify our admissions process. So far we have raised admissions standards for the current applicant cohort, as well as added new unique scholarship opportunities. However, since Fall 2015 admissions decisions were already finished by the time President Newman took office, we implemented some measures for the Fall.
Step one of this plan was to gather better information about our students so we know how to better address the problems they are having. This effort was led by upgrading the process for faculty reporting, utilizing payment information, using admissions data, student life event data, and gathering information from students on a freshman survey designed by a team including a member of our psychology faculty, and influenced by leading research out of Stanford, Berkeley, and Penn.
Step two was for the Mount Cares Committee to meet every Friday, beginning with the first Friday of the semester, to discuss students who were not on a success track. This committee is made up of members of the Mount community who work to identify and intervene with struggling students. Using ALL of the information available, President Newman wanted members of the committee to have interventions with these students. During these interventions, President Newman wanted students to be faced with the fact that college was a serious commitment, and that they were not alone in their path to succeed. These students were to continue on, but have more interactions each week to make sure that they were engaged with the campus, going to class, and completing assignments.
If the students demonstrated improvement and a desire to continue, that was the optimal outcome. If the students continued to miss class, not turn in assignments, disrupt the classroom and community, and demonstrate that the Mount wasn’t right for them, they would be given the choice to leave the Mount and offered a refund, or make an ongoing attempt to continue. Based on historical retention numbers and faculty anecdotes, the number of students who would be better off “finding their happiness elsewhere,” as President Newman put it, was estimated to be 20-25. This number was communicated as a guideline, based on historical numbers, not as a quota to be filled.
At no time did President Newman ever suggest that a committed, hardworking student should leave this University. I have seen many students and alum write that they are so glad the Mount took a chance on them, despite their low scores, and they are appalled to think that the Mount is kicking out students like them. President Newman never wanted this initiative to remove a student who had a low score but was willing to work hard. Frankly, if this was the case, I would have quit.
To the contrary, the philosophy that drove the retention initiative is that students are more than a number. We should build our admissions and retention strategy around traits like grit, perseverance, and positivity. One use of the survey was to learn more about these traits and establish correlations before using these theories as a building block for future admissions processes. At no point was a student EVER going to be kicked out of the university based on how they responded to a question on the survey. If the survey did show difficulty in an area, the secondary intent of the survey was to use that information to help that student by focusing the conversations and interventions with them. As the introduction to the survey said: “we will provide you with some insights into what your responses show about the person you are and could become.”
Despite the President’s directives, investments in technology and research, and work which was done, the initial implementation of the program did not go well. There were a number of operational and communication problems that went unresolved for too long, greatly reducing its potential impact. The administration is working to refine implementation for next year.
Some people doubt that there was ever any intent or discussion to help struggling students. Having been personally involved in the design and attempted implementation of the program I can categorically state that there was, and that all of the following is true. In June, President Newman asked me for information about Alan Tripp, CEO of Inside Track. This company provides individual success coaching for students. President Newman was introduced to Alan during a reunion trip to Stanford, and was keen on learning more about coaching and interventions, and possibly creating a partnership. Also during the June trip, President Newman cc’d me on an email to Carol Dweck, who is a renowned researcher at Stanford. The email was also seeking a partnership, and inquired about the possibility of using Dweck’s research on student success and growth mindset in our core curriculum. I was also cc’d on an email to Angela Duckworth, the Penn researcher who coined the term grit, with a similar proposition. Finally, in July of last year, President Newman asked me to review an article “Obtaining Academic Success: Nurturing Grit in Students” which was written by his niece at Penn State University. President Newman asked if there was anything we could implement in the article, especially for struggling students. Based on my response, he concluded that it would take too much, and said “We are already doing a lot of things, so I don’t want us to be overloaded.” These examples only scratch the surface of the research and discussion which went into improving support for our students. Despite all of the negativity surrounding our efforts, I am extremely excited by the improvements we are planning for next year and beyond.
At the now infamous impromptu meeting after the September presentation, President Newman was upset because he heard from a few faculty members that none of the plan had been implemented, and we were already weeks into the semester (I was there). He repeated this message to those faculty that night: “we should have had these meetings weeks ago!” Rather than call the whole plan off, the President wanted information about who had not been showing up to class or turning in assignments. These students were to be met with, counseled, and if their situation dictated, offered a refund.
Much of the controversy surrounding the recently published articles is focused on the language used by President Newman in conversation with faculty members at this impromptu meeting. While the comments are inappropriate, the lack of context and misrepresentation is wrong as well.
The facts surrounding retention and how it is good for both students and the university had long been established prior to the planning of the initiative. Any investigation- even a simple google search- will bring out the facts. For example, how many people are aware that there are 31 million people in the country with some college and no degree (Shapiro et al. 13), and that these dropouts are defaulting on their loans at 4 times the rate of graduates (Gladieux & Perna 1), and that these dropouts have an average net worth one tenth of people who never went to college (Simmons-Duffin)?
The deplorable irony of this story is that at the end of the fall semester, 26 freshman were academically dismissed or withdrew from the university, with no involvement of the President whatsoever, and using only the academic procedures that had been in place before his arrival (this once again excludes transfers). These 26 students were charged in excess of $300,000 and now have nothing to show for it. I have to wonder how many of these students might have opted out sooner if given the opportunity to get their money back. Or better yet, changed their behavior as a result of early, informed, and caring interventions.
The Mount is in a challenging but exciting transition phase, and the vision of this administration is overwhelmingly positive. Each decision that is made is made carefully, and has reason, facts, and ethics behind it.
I hope the community benefits from my perspective. I am tired of focusing on the negatives of the Mount’s past, and want to focus on the bright future we are working hard to create.
Matthew Steele c’15
Editor’s Note: The author has included a list of citations to accompany this letter. They are listed below in the same order as they appear in the author’s letter.
Gladieux, Lawrence, Laura Perna, and Education National Center for Public Policy and Higher. “Borrowers Who Drop Out: A Neglected Aspect Of The College Student Loan Trend. National Center Report #05-2.” National Center For Public Policy And Higher Education (2005): ERIC.
Korn, Melissa. “A Bit of College Can Be Worse Than None at All.” The Wall Street Journal. 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Yuan, X., Harrell, A., Wild, J., Ziskin, M. (2014, July). Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion (Signature Report No. 7). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Simmons-Duffin, Selena. “For Millions Of Millennials: Some College, No Degree, Lots Of Debt.” NPR. NPR, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.