The Elephant in the Room
There is a saying that doctors bury their mistakes. It appears that in our education system, we also bury our mistakes — in the form of our dismal retention rates.One only has to look at the record that begins with the limited number of students who have access to Advanced Placement courses to see that we are committing the equivalent of educational fratricide. In special correspondent Pamela Burdman’s feature story, (see pg. 28) she looks at the reality of students, who despite their ambition are fighting a very steep uphill battle. We readily acknowledge that at the secondary level, issues of educational access are complicated by a number of social and economic factors that are often beyond the reach of teachers and principals.For colleges, the issues are clearer. The old maxim that we only owe students a chance to graduate is morally wrong. The reality is that no matter how many other criteria schools like to brag about when showing how great they are, it all rings hollow if they have a dismal retention record. Take a look at the lists on pages 43 and 44 and see if you don’t agree.As exemplified in Assistant Editor Hilary Hurd’s story about retention at historically Black colleges (see pg. 42), Hampton University administrators and faculty are set on making Hampton not just a good school, but a great school. They understand that in order to do that, one must pay close attention to the retention rates of the students whose parents have entrusted them with giving their kids a good education. There’s an elephant in this room that no one wants to talk about. The elephant is retention. Technology specialists are applauding many institutions for their efforts at bridging the Digital Divide. National higher education experts are boasting about unprecedented enrollment numbers. Colleges and universities across the country are bragging about individual student accomplishments and other goings-on.But beneath each college’s carefully chosen numbers and the faces of smiling students plastered on its posters and brochures lies an important figure: the retention rate. The truth is that at most colleges the number of returning students and the number who graduate in six years is pitifully low. Many college administrators say that retention has only recently become a main focus, pointing out that students have to be admitted in the first place before they can be welcomed back.The solution? More colleges and universities are quite simply going to have to rededicate a large amount of their resources to ensuring that students matriculate. Indeed, with the fate of the federal TRIO program uncertain at Black Issues press time (see pg. 7), it’s going to take a national commitment to make things happen. But after putting together the package of stories for this issue, one thing really sinks in. One of the most critical components to getting anything done at a postsecondary institution is a commitment from the top. Most high-ranking college officials will loudly proclaim their dedication to beefing up institutional resources for technology. There is a lot of fuss about technology, and it is a hard issue to ignore. But there aren’t many people screaming about the atrociously low rate at which our nation’s colleges retain students of color, so campus officials are seldom held accountable. We at Black Issues have examined these problems in special reports on recruitment and retention for several years. The edition you hold in your hands is our commitment to keeping the issue on the table. In addition to our coverage on African American students’ access to Advanced Placement programs and retention woes at HBCUs, Senior Writer Ronald Roach investigates the recruitment strategies being implemented by HBCUs such as Howard and Florida A&M universities to draw the nation’s top African American students (see pg. 36).It is not enough to simply keep up these efforts at recruitment and retention. We have to increase our efforts to get more students in the front door, and we have to find ways to keep them in school until they leave with a diploma in hand. The only way we can do this is to acknowledge the elephant in the room. If we can talk about it, maybe we can find a way to get rid of it.
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