the students we want
intervene before students ponder that age-old question, "Should
I stay or should I go?"
inevitable: some of the parents who dropped off first-years
this September will receive that dreaded phone call late in
fall quarter, right around Thanksgiving: "Mom, Dad, I don't
like it here. I want to leave."
of the College John W. Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, has heard the story
many times. "Parents hate it," he says. "It's like being socked
in the face. They think, 'But we just went through the whole
ritual of dropping you off.' That's what you can read on their
faces September 15: 'This kid is here for good-right?'"
20 years ago, in 1983, when the College was graduating only
62 percent of incoming first-years after four years and 71 percent
after six years, the response might have been a frustrated "your
guess is as good as ours." But in recent years, as the graduation
rate has risen to 80 percent after four years and 84.5 percent
after six, Boyer's response is a resounding, if tempered, affirmative:
"We'll do all that we can to ensure the academic success of
effort begins long before mid-September, as the admissions staff
whittles the applicant pool down to a (slightly larger every
year) group of high academic achievers who say Chicago is their
first choice. It continues with a revamped New Student Orientation
(see "College Report," October/00) and targeted events as students
progress through the next four years. Those efforts are reinforced
by a College advising office that's becoming less a group of
what former Dean of Students Katie Nash called "airline reservationists"-advisors
whose raison d'etre was to facilitate drop-and-add. Now technology
takes care of such tasks, and the advisors are sounding boards
for students' concerns and big-life questions. Meanwhile, the
housing staff, faculty, and administrators are more attuned
to their roles in retaining students who might otherwise become
what a 1998 study on attrition for the College termed "leavers."
Other changes help round out the student experience: a growing
bevy of foreign-study programs, College-sponsored internships
(see "College Report," April/01), the new centrally located
residence halls, and the Bartlett dining hall-even the Reynolds
Club, a gathering place students now take for granted but was
sorely needed when it was renovated in 1995. The Gerald Ratner
Athletics Center is eagerly anticipated by the many students
who shoot hoops or swim laps when they're not hitting the books
like the good Chicago kids they still are.
changes are part of a concerted plan to improve the quality
of student life and, unquestionably, to improve the College's
retention rate-and not just because Chicago has made a woeful
showing in this area in the annual U.S. News and World Report
rankings (see "News you can abuse," page 18), but because
it's the right thing to do.
"It comes from having a dean who's interested in the whole student,"
says Susan Art, AM'74, who became dean of students this July
after 12 years as a College advisor. For his part, Boyer is
quick to point out that he's not the first College administrator
to be concerned with retention (he cites a 1961 study on freshmen
attrition by Mary Alice Newman and the efforts of his predecessors
in the 1980s and early 1990s). Still, "the whole student" has
become the mantra for College administrators and staff since
Boyer became dean in 1992. There isn't, he makes clear, talk
about changing the type of students who come to Chicago.
"The fears that we're going to turn Chicago into a Princeton
are simply groundless," says Michael R. Jones, AM'83, PhD'88,
associate dean of programs and development in the College. Rather,
the talk is of making life better for, in Art's words, the "idiosyncratic"
individuals who continue to be drawn to Chicago's intellectual
president for College enrollment Michael C. Behnke agrees. "Our
students define themselves as students," he says, "not as athletes
or student-council presidents, though some may be those as well."
As academic beings who emulate the faculty, Chicago students,
says Art, "love critical-skills development-and they don't develop
without being challenged. But we have to find the right balance.
We don't want them to be demolished by the challenges so that
they lose a sense of themselves and their capacities."
does Chicago have more "leavers" than its peer schools? That,
says Boyer, depends on how you define peers. Harvard
and Yale graduate upwards of 95 percent, but, he says, Chicagoans
more closely resemble students at MIT or Caltech, which have
retention rates in the mid-80s to low 90s.
for why leavers depart, the answers are not clear-cut. But a
study of 114 first-years who left the College in 1997, including
30 interviews, is instructive.
data simply fail to put a finger on one or two or three aspects
of the University of Chicago 'culture' that, more often than
elsewhere, propels people to leave," stated the study's author,
Joseph C. Hermanowicz, AB'90, AM'93, PhD'96. One thing is sure:
counter to common belief, students don't leave because they
can't hack it. Though some leavers cited the common core or
the academic rigor, their academic standing tends to parallel
those who stay: the College both loses and retains good and
poor students. And while about one in four leavers interviewed
said their primary reason was financial, their financial-aid
profiles also paralleled those of the student body at large.
Another debunked myth: students depart to attend prestigious
schools they didn't get into the first time around. Most transfer
to state universities or small colleges-usually to be closer
is a problem across the board, affecting students of both genders
and all racial and ethnic groups. Most students cite two or
three compounding reasons for leaving, such as feeling they
don't fit in with other students, being dissatisfied with their
financial aid, and disliking the quarter system. For a small
subset, the match with the College is itself questionable-they
leave to pursue programs of study not offered by Chicago, like
filmmaking or engineering.
points have driven the College's initiatives in recent years:
the decision to leave is made quickly, usually soon after arrival,
and it most often occurs in social isolation and with little
information. Indeed, students thinking about leaving almost
never consult faculty members. They rarely consult advisors,
and when they do, it usually is to learn the mechanics for leaving.
Few have sustained dialogue on the issue with staff in their
besides parents, students thinking about leaving talk to very
what we know," the report concluded, "changing the structure
of communication, especially communication with students in
the first year of college when they are at greatest risk, offers
the highest hope for substantially reducing attrition...."
short, a simple "How's it going?"-early and often-from a College
advisor, resident head, or resident assistant can do wonders.
Meanwhile, Heather L. Johnson, AB'98, and her College programming
staff have created a roster of activities to address unspoken
anxieties. New Student Orientation, which once featured hours
of placement exams, now gives first-years the time and space
to get to know each other.
second-years, the office's Web site offers tips on choosing
a concentration and how to approach department chairs. "Students
tell us two things: they don't know what to ask, and they're
afraid. So that's an obvious place where we can provide some
guidance." At the Taking the Next Step career event for third-years,
she says, "students realize, 'Oh wow. Everyone has a fear of
finding a job next year. Everyone's nervous. I'm not the only
The success of these programs, Johnson says, hinges on the faculty.
"At the end of the day, if the faculty doesn't endorse what
we offer, then it's not cool." Luckily, Michael Behnke says,
the faculty is very responsive. "And that's not true at other
institutions. I find there is a tremendous sensitivity to retention
issues on the part of Chicago's faculty and the administration.
Areas are not being consciously neglected," he notes. "Everyone's
busy and has priorities in their own work. But once a problem
is identified, plenty of people are ready to step up and address
College's success is written in the retention numbers, which
have inched steadily upward since the lows of the early 1980s.
But it's also apparent, says Bill Michel, AB'92, deputy dean
of development and student activities, in the "new peer pressure
to recognize the benefits of this place. Students get frustrated
now by others who complain all the time."
atmosphere has changed in other ways too. "On a broad cultural
level," says Michael Jones, "the College is now a much less
isolated place. Now it is more a part of the neighborhood and
the city, and there is a connection to the world. As a result,
one doesn't have to either be here fully, in some monastic sense,
or drop out. It isn't so black and white."
but surely, more and more often, Boyer agrees, the parents in
mid-September are right: these kids are here for good. - S.A.S.