GW administrators are understandably excited that the University’s retention rate continues to climb. They attribute this success to a high level of student satisfaction with the services GW provides. While this may be true – no hard data exists to support or refute this claim – the issue of student retention is much more complicated than administrators let on and deserves a more thorough examination.
The primary factor in a student attending a college or university, especially one as expensive as GW, is often ability to pay the cost of attendance. GW’s cost of attendance has steadily risen over the years and now lies somewhere above $36,000. The economy of the late ’90s was one of the most prosperous in history – a factor that certainly helps families meet the high price of a GW education. Now that economists are focused more on recession than record economic growth, sticker shock could wreak havoc with GW’s retention rate. As economic worries increase, fewer students and fewer parents may be willing to pay for an expensive urban, private university.
Attributing high retention rates to GW’s student services seems like a false argument. A large proportion of students continuously complain about the services GW offers. While this may be the moaning of hard-to-please students, retention rates cannot hinge upon services that so many see as flawed. Few students note an appreciable improvement in student services during their tenure, evidence that would be necessary to prove those services are crucial to high year to year gains in retention rates.
Higher retention rates are good for GW, but oversimplifying their causes sets the University up for failure in the future. Transferring schools is less popular than in the past. And GW is no longer seen primarily as a “commuter school” with upgraded campus facilities. The University’s academic reputation has also improved, although not at the same rate as its buildings and plazas. A good economy gave more families more financial flexibility. All of these factors could and probably did figure into GW’s rising retention rates.
Improving student services is a worthwhile goal even if success is not so easily measured. But chief among GW’s goals should also be improving academics – the stated mission of the institution. Oversimplifying GW’s success could set the University up for later failure. If GW does not understand why students come back, the University will not be able to duplicate its success in the future.