Staff Editorial: Retention should not be Knapp’s top priority

It’s unlike GW to advertise its problems. Normally, they’re kept relatively quiet and carefully secured until a plan is in place.

But that’s not what happened last week, when University President Steven Knapp said that his priority for this academic year is to boost “an area of weakness” — retention.

Normally, we would be thrilled that officials are being open about GW’s problems and are prepared to work on them – except, retention isn’t really a weakness for GW. At 93 percent, our retention rate is 10 points above the national average at four-year institutions, and hovers near our peer schools’ rates — like New York University at 92 percent and Georgetown University at 96 percent.

That leaves us wondering – why is Knapp making our retention rate an issue?

Right now, retention is a buzzword in higher education. Universities and colleges all over the country have begun to set it as their “focus” as a way of investing in student services, an area where GW has increased spending in recent years. And Knapp said that making sure students have a high quality of life on campus could ensure they return the next fall. But that goal doesn’t feel realistic, given that almost anything could be considered an aspect of student life — and it’s impossible to prioritize everything that affects students.

Instead of setting real, tangible goals, it feels like GW is jumping onto a trend. It would be much more realistic for University officials to focus on a real problem, like affordability, rather than tossing around buzzwords and vague initiatives.

In order to make a higher retention rate a more realistic priority, officials need a specific plan of action — something we haven’t yet been given. Instead, we have more questions than answers: How, exactly, will officials focus on “inner-community things,” as Knapp suggested? What are the next steps to creating a healthier campus? How do officials plan to support students?

Once we have some answers, it might be easier to determine whether retention is really something GW wants to hit hard this year. But for now, it just feels like smoke and mirrors.

Granted, last week’s U.S. News & World Report rankings show that GW is a bit behind the top schools — which have an average freshman retention rate of 97.3 percent. But falling behind by a handful of percentage points certainly isn’t enough of a deficit to require so much extra attention.

Schools should each do what’s best for them instead of prioritizing the results of rankings that combine many different factors — and Knapp even said last week that the U.S. News ranking doesn’t give a full picture of a school. At schools with low retention rates, it makes sense to shift priorities accordingly. But since retention isn’t really a problem at GW, it’s too difficult to pinpoint any trend in students leaving the school. They may transfer, leave college altogether or take time off for a myriad of reasons.

Knapp also didn’t provide enough detail to prove that the University can actually increase its retention rate. He didn’t set a benchmark or note how GW would track its progress.

He also said that he wants to create a “robust program of prevention and response” for sexual assault as part of his commitment to improving retention. Of course, it’s commendable that he recognizes sexual violence could impact a survivor’s decision about whether to return to school or not. But Knapp could easily make GW’s anti-sexual assault program a priority without lumping it in so broadly with retention, and creating strong sexual assault prevention programs has already been on the top of officials’ priority lists for the last several years.

Ultimately, there are much more pressing priorities that University officials could work on this year. Experts have suggested that retaining students requires looking beyond affordability. But shifting away from making GW a financially viable option for students would be a bad move.

Knapp should keep his focus on affordability, something he has prioritized since arriving at GW. It’s an issue that many students genuinely care about, and is more realistic than an ambiguous goal of improving student life.

Officials increased the financial aid pool last year by $27 million, and that shows a commitment to affordability they should keep. Making GW more affordable might even have the desired effect that Knapp is looking for: an increase in the retention rate. If students were able to just focus on school and not worry about paying for it, they may also decide to get more involved on campus, and in turn feel more connected to GW. And a school that’s more affordable is also likely to be more diverse — which benefits everyone.

Ideally, officials would use their energy to make sure students can comfortably afford to attend GW. But if Knapp and other officials insist that retention has to be the priority this year, we’ll need to know more than what we’ve been told so far.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with managing director Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, sports editor Nora Princiotti, design assistant Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer.

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