As a lifelong educator who works with low-income, first-generation-to-college students every day, I find the perspective reflected by Mount St. Mary's University President Simon Newman deeply disturbing. President Newman has recently been criticized for advocating that his school push out students the university deems likely to fail by Sept. 25 of their freshman year. "You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads," he said.
Let's be clear about which "bunnies" President Newman is advocating to release from Mount St. Mary's: the poor ones. Because family income is the best indicator of college graduation in America, it seems likely that the students he dismisses as needing to go to another university or vocational school are those who come from the lowest socioeconomic class. This "retention" effort is a disingenuous workaround that aims to boost Mount St. Mary's profile while avoiding the university's mission to support and educate all of the students they bring to their campus.
Mr. Newman unapologetically defends his plans, which include identifying struggling freshman in the early months of their first semester, having a "frank conversation" to explain their current standing, and offering them their tuition back when they decide to leave — conveniently before they would count toward the university's retention rate.
President Newman cites the statistic that only 59 percent of American students graduate from college to suggest that the other 41 percent do not succeed because they do not belong in college. Perhaps to Mr. Newman's surprise, educators around the country disagree with his determinist views. Entire initiatives have been developed — from the Lumina Foundation to the White House — on the premise that providing appropriate, tailored supports to the 41 percent of struggling students can and does increase their success rates.
To find evidence of these supports in practice, President Newman need only take a 90-minute drive to Franklin and Marshall College, where administrators regularly use data like attendance and GPA to flag when a student may be in need of intervention. By offering struggling students help to grow, rather than help to leave, Franklin and Marshall has developed a community of trust, support and academic success.
President Newman might also take note of research at the University of Texas highlighted in the New York Times by writer Paul Tough. At UT-Austin, educators have paired Angela Duckworth's work on "grit" and perseverance with Carol Dweck's research on the "growth mindset" — the belief in everyone's capacity to learn new things through hard work. The result of University of Texas' simple interventions during freshman orientation made disadvantaged students more likely to be on track to graduate.
Matriculating to college is a life-changing decision for them, and as with most major changes, it comes with its share of disorientation. For some students, it is learning how to handle receiving a failing grade for the first time; for others, the challenge is finding the confidence and courage to navigate a campus of peers from very different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Most 18-year-olds are still figuring out how do to laundry in the first month or two of school. Nearly all students are away from family for the first time in college, and many from poorer families are balancing work and academic commitments. If faced with the frank conversation with a school administrator that Mr. Newman suggests, many would feel intimidated and pressured to leave. In colleges with supportive structures, students overcome the various obstacles they face and make a positive impact on their campuses while earning their degrees. A college degree is a pathway to a better life for these students, and by summarily deciding it is not for them, we deprive them of that better life and our nation of future leaders and innovators.
Contrary to President Newman's beliefs, college does not exist to serve solely those who, by chance of birth, have had the advantages in life that make transitioning to college easy. To identify 20 to 25 students in the first months of school who need to be "refunded" is unconscionable. If Mr. Newman is unwilling to educate all the students his university has accepted through its admissions process, he should at least warn the students before taking their money in the first place.
In these times when the gap between the rich and poor is ever increasing, we should be looking for ways to lift up hard-working, college-enrolled students, not drag them down — or drown them.
Rachel Pfeifer is president of Collegiate Directions, Inc., based in Bethesda. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.