As a reporter, I covered higher education for years. I always felt like I was peering through smoky glass at a strange world. That world seemed hidebound by rules from another era, encased in proud traditions that made little sense. Now that I’m inside the ivory tower, the tables are turned, somewhat.
As a reporter, one of my pet peeves was the low success rate at many colleges and universities. At many schools, only 10 percent of students can be expected to graduate. I found this fact a shocking waste of talent and money for students, for hard-pressed families, and for the governments that fronted the money for these half-finished degrees. I pushed administrators hard to explain why they could not improve those numbers. Many shrugged their shoulders and said, they could only do so much, that student’s lives and lack of preparation simply get in the way of their studies.
Now, I’m a college administrator. Our university is facing a decline in enrollment, thanks in large part to demographics we cannot control. At the same time, the state is pressuring us to improve outcomes, just the sort of thing this reporter wanted to see. But to this college administrator, that laudable goal seems a lot further away. We know the easiest way to ensure that more students stay in school and graduate is to raise our standards, and recruit students who are better prepared. Doing that, however, might cut our enrollment, because many students would not have the grades qualify. So we’d get more money for retention numbers, but then lose it on enrollment. It turns out, there are only so many ways to squeeze the balloon before it pops.
This is an old story—reporter gets a real job, and learns life ain’t as simple as he thought. But that doesn’t meant those questions I used to ask were unfair or off base. Now, it’s my job to help fix the problem, no matter how hard it is. And I hope some reporter is out there staring at the numbers and putting pressure on people in higher ed—including me—to do a better job.
Dean Larry Abramson