Retention, or When a Student Disappears

As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to “retain” students is trickling down to the individual instructors. 

Anyone who has been following me knows that I care about my students, perhaps too much. Does this mean that I am perfect when it comes to doing everything and anything I can to “retain” students? Not in the least, but I’d like to think that I am there for students who are ready and willing to help themselves. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But for all of our efforts, additional services, councilors, tutors, advisors, and financial aid options, students, good students, still disappear. 
Last semester, I had a pretty good student in my 200-level writing class. Not the best student, but a solid student who was willing to do the work, ask questions, think, and improve. She also happened to live just in behind our house. We would often see each other on weekends or in the evenings when I would be playing outside with my kids. I got to know her a little bit. She was from out of state, wanted to be a nurse, spent her summers on Christian missions, had a job working back home as a waitress, and was generally a good person. She was planning on living in the same place this year. I even contacted her over the summer to let her know that the windows of her back door had been broken. She got back to me to thank me and told me she was looking forward to seeing me in the fall.
Fall has come, and we’re three weeks into the semester. I have not seen her. I have no idea why she’s not back. Did she run out of money? Did something happen to her, or her family? Did she transfer? None of these things matter in the grand scheme of things, at least to those who do the counting; she has dropped out, thus hurting our “completion rates.” But how do we plan for students like this, students who seem to be most prepared to succeed in college? Our university has a high rate of first-generation and poor students and most of our resources are focused on their success. We, on the ground, know how hard it is to get students to understand the importance of attending class, of making university their top priority, when their families are pressuring them to work or take time off to support those back home. When a student who seems well-equipped to succeed and then doesn’t, what could we have done differently? 
I teach five section of writing-intensive courses. I have trouble learning my students’ names, but I do try to get to know each of them as well as I can, but often its the ones who are having the most difficulty that I get to know the best. When a student who was doing well disappears, it’s difficult for me because I wonder if we were set up to help her succeed. I despair: if we can’t even hold on to the solid student, what hope do the rest have? I know that people look at a school like ours and point to it saying that we are wasting taxpayer money, that we’re failing at our jobs, and that we need to be held “accountable.” 
I’m not really sure how much more I can do. 

2 thoughts on “Retention, or When a Student Disappears”

  1. I think you keep on doing what you're doing, Lee. I know it's incredibly tough work, but perhaps this student has a family or medical issue. I've been telling my community college students to PLEASE speak with me before dropping the class. This is optional, of course, but I explain at the beginning of the semester that I want them to succeed and that if they're struggling with something to please talk with me before making that choice. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. That doesn't mean you're not an effective teacher. Hang in there!

  2. I totally agree with you, Lee. I go through the exact same feelings as you do. I also agree with Kella, who said that she always asks the students to please talk to her before dropping the class. Many students do. Some students don't. What upsets me the most is when I will try to track a student down via e-mail and they simply don't respond, even to tell me that they decided not to continue… for whatever reason. They are probably just feeling shame already or they can't unbury–or consider another possibility–from whatever has overwhelmed them. I have to remind myself over and over again that the journey is theirs.

    I fell out of sight after losing a parent during finals time at my CC, and what happened in those ensuing years shaped me to be who I am now. I stayed out of school for six years. Certainly, I wish a prof had reeled me back in (I actually did go to the profs and tell them, but they didn't encourage me to stay in, ironically enough), but I apparently needed to go through what I did. I'm so glad I found my way back, and when I did, I was a non-traditional student and ready to take my education by storm. Thank you for a compelling post. Embrace your caring too much. We make a difference! Ellen

Comments are closed.