Education and Urban Prosperity: The Case For Retention

Every year, a new crop of excited freshmen arrive on local college campuses - and by the projected graduation date four years down the road, only one third of those same students are lining up to get their diplomas. Another third or so have finished in six years, while the rest either don't finish at all or take a long enough break that they're starting fresh. The situation is even more dire for minorities: African-American students have a 12 percent graduation rate within four years and a 33 percent six-year rate, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education
The good news is, Michigan is slightly ahead of the national figures for graduation rates; also, we've improved by a few percentage points in the last decade. But, the Chronicle of Higher Education says, we spend a lot for every certificate or degree: $75,879 versus $68,617 nationally.
Clearly, we're doing some things right - but there is more to be done. To that end, Oakland University is hosting a conference on retention in higher education next week (Mar. 14 – 15), designed to showcase some of the best practices among Michigan universities in getting those students who start college to finish it. 
"We often operate in such isolation that we find ourselves recreating the wheel," says Scott Crabill, interim vice provost for undergraduate education. "This is one of those complex issues that can't be solved easily, to create a meaningful, engaging educational experience that students follow through with."
One of the most important things, Crabill says, is to understand that even though some studies show college will increase a person's earning capacity by a million dollars over their lifetime, it's not just about career preparation. It's about learning to be a productive citizen. Those lessons are often learned in the classes that can seem the least applicable to "the real world," like the liberal arts general education requirements unrelated to a student's major. 
"Institutions need to to make that a little more transparent for students," Crabill says. "We want you to be successful, we want you to find a career, and we want you to be a good citizen and participate in the democracy."
College completion can be a way to create those good citizens by closing the gap between rich and poor, says Syracuse professor Vincent Tinto, who will be giving the keynote speech at the conference. Much of Tinto's work has focused on ways to help low income students succeed in college, which is crucial to addressing the income inequalities that Tinto believes are harming America's productivity both nationally and on a global scale. 
"Clearly, as we look toward the future, unless we are able to close that gap, we will never have reached the economic outcomes we want throughout the nation," Tinto explains. "Part of this is also a question about our international global competitiveness. I'm not only concerned about our ability to generate more students to help our economic development in the marketplace, but we're moving further behind individual nations and the world as a whole."
Crabill pointed out a program at Oakland that partners with the Michigan College Access Network to help get fourth graders thinking about college, especially those who would be the first in their families to get a degree. Oakland student volunteers are trained to be "college positive" with the children; for example, not asking them if they want to go to college, but instead asking where they want to go. 
Retention is key to economic development locally as well. Greg Handel is the senior director of workforce development at the Detroit Regional Chamber. He's also an advocate for the local Talent Divdend Prize effort. The Talent Dividend Prize is a project of the Lumina Foundation and CEOs for Cities. Their research suggests that 58 percent of a region's economic health comes from the educational attainment of its residents, and that nationally a mere 1 percentage point increase in the number of college graduates could add $124 billion dollars to incomes nationally. 
To that end, they have funded a competition between 57 cities or metro areas: Whoever posts the biggest percent point increase in college graduates within four years gets $1 million to promote their cities. 
The Detroit team is implementing a variety of interesting programs, whether they are a direct outgrowth of the Talent Dividend Prize competition or not. One is the Intern in Michigan program, which matches college students nationwide with opportunities here in the state. The hope is that participating students will come back to Michigan for a job once they complete school. 
A counterpart of that is the Global Talent Retention Initiative, which helps companies through the process of hiring foreign students who have come here to study at the universities and would like to stay if a job is available. 
"We need to get people into the pipeline, keep them from leaking out of the pipeline by leaving school, and then we have to work to keep people in region and in the state," says Handel. 
Retention is a critical issue for colleges and universities, especially as cash-strapped states are increasingly pressing for evidence of return on investment. The conference was sold out well before the early registration period was over, Crabill says, which just points to the importance of the issue to college and university administrators. 
"The formula for performance-based funding is going to be a reality of the future," Crabill says. "Rather than being behind that, it's good to get ahead of it. Folks are looking for good ideas." 

All Photography by David Lewinski Photography
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