Reuben Wilson came to GW to study photography, but he left after a year and a half of classes. And GW will never know why.
Wilson, who is now enrolled at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said GW’s photography classes were rudimentary, re-teaching him skills he learned in high school. He said he plans to return to the District next year to study full-time at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, just blocks from where he spent his freshman year.
“I definitely didn’t feel like I was getting my money’s worth,” Wilson said. “I felt gypped a little bit.”
Wilson is one of hundreds of students who leave GW each year, but for the past two years, the University has not been able to accurately track why or where they go.
GW digitized its transfer process – allowing students to fill out paperwork online – in 2011. Until then, when students asked GW to send forms to other schools or cancel their housing, staffers reached out in person or left surveys on students' doors asking them where they were going and their reasoning.
“When transcript requests and housing check-outs moved online, we lost out source for soliciting information,” Cheryl Beil, associate provost for academic planning and assessment, said. She said it’s now “very difficult to know why students are leaving GW.”
In the past decade, the freshman retention rate crept up from about 86 percent in 2001 to 91.4 percent last year. This means that out of last year’s freshman class, about 200 students dropped out or transferred, which is on par with institutions similar to GW, like New York and Boston universities, which hover at 92 and 91 percent respectively.
Beil declined to provide the official number of students who have transferred in the past five years.
About 4 percent of students on financial aid drop out each year because they can no longer afford GW, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistant Dan Small said in August.
This year, the University started emailing students who leave and asking them to complete an online survey to get a fuller picture of why students were leaving.
But mostly, Beil said, the requests get lost in students’ email inboxes. She said she couldn’t say how many students transfer out of GW because “the number of students who complete the survey each year is too small to report in the data.”
She doesn’t think the reporting process will get any easier either, she said, adding, “It is difficult to get students to respond to a survey.”
Beil said the University submits data to the National Clearinghouse, which cross-checks names of students with other colleges to pinpoint the transfers. She said the process is not fully reliable because some students wait before transferring to another school, and some universities do not submit data to the clearinghouse.
Beil also said she could not provide the number of students who did not return to GW this semester because it was “too soon” to find out. The University uses retention rates to look at total numbers at the end of the year, she added.
Calculating the retention rate can still be “misleading,” Beil said, because the national agency only tracks full-time students and misses part-time students or students who take a semester off or transfer.
When GW collected data on a larger scale, students’ responses were broken down into types of transfers such as personal, financial or academic reasons. She declined to provide the breakdown of the responses.
Tracking why students transfer and drop out is also a national problem. Last month, the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment called out universities nationwide for not focusing more attention on keeping students in college, calling it a “hollow promise” in a 28-page report.
Director of the Center for Student Engagement Tim Miller said he began working with the Office of Institutional Research to find out why a student leaves after that report, realizing that many other colleges grapple with the same issue.
“I want to understand. If there is something we can do to make this an even better place for students – because I already think this is an amazing opportunity for students to be here – what can we do to make it even better,” Miller said.
He called house staff the “front line of retention” and said he wants them to help more students, especially first-years, make strong connections.
Miller has begun to explore factors that keep students at GW, like strong first semester grades – students who do poorly typically do not stay – and student organization involvement.
For freshman Haydn Booth, who transferred out his first semester, GW was just not the right fit. He was in the NROTC program and said his Thurston room was too loud, and he didn’t connect spiritually to any Christian organization on campus. He also had difficulty learning in large lecture classes.
Booth's attachment to GW’s Korean language program kept him in Foggy Bottom for a few months, but it wasn’t enough to keep him for four years. He now studies at Hood College in Maryland, where he said he is much happier.
“Every office knows who I am by first name, unlike GW where everything is automated and I didn’t like that as much,” he said. “GW was a positive experience but it wasn’t the right place for me.”