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ECGF considers attrition rates

This is the first story in a five-part series examining attrition among graduate students.

The Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty is trying to discover why a third of graduate students leave the University without what they came for--a doctorate.

Concerned with both the human and financial implications of student attrition, the committee will study the more successful graduate departments and determine what they are doing in four areas that many agree could greatly affect the situation: the admissions process, student meeting space, faculty mentoring and career advising.

"As the Graduate School sees it, it's a no-brainer," said Lewis Siegel, dean of the Graduate School. "[Attrition] is the overwhelming major problem with doctoral education in the U.S."

The Graduate School is currently graduating students at about 63 percent--a higher rate than that of the nation's graduate schools as a whole, which is less than 50 percent. The University's interest in the topic coincides with a similar national conversation.

Attrition rates account for both students who drop out entirely and students who switch to master's programs along the way. Two-thirds of attrition occurs in the second or third years. Another 20 percent happens after the sixth year, leaving only minimal attrition in year one and between years three and six.

From human and financial perspectives, the costs of attrition differ at each of these drop-out points.

"If you look at it from a pure human point of view, if you take the course work and then drop out after a year, you're probably better off," Siegel said. "But no one believes if you stay here five, six, seven years and then drop out that that is a good thing."

The financial perspective, Siegel added, is much different. Since the first few years of a graduate education incurs many costs for the University and the last few years generate research that "gives back" part of the University's investment, it causes the University fewer financial difficulties when a graduate student drops out late in their career.

"To the extent that it is our fault, we're wasting our resources," Provost Peter Lange said. "To the extent that we're not doing our job well, we're devoting resources of time and energy of some very smart and busy people [faculty] and taking up a piece of someone's life [students who do not get their doctorate] that is not very productive for them."

There is also an opportunity cost, particularly for small departments, who only have a handful of spots to fill each year. "When students leave without a degree, we worry we could have brought in someone who would have gotten through instead," said Marcy Speer, director of graduate studies in the University Program in Genetics, whose 13 percent attrition rate is the lowest of the biological sciences.

Although most agree that some students will drop out regardless, the University wants to make sure it is choosing applicants who are a good match for the school and who are likely to continue in the program to the end. It also wants to encourage social interactions between students, mentoring from faculty and career advising, Siegel said.

"The big worry is that there may be tools out there to help students get through that we may not be giving them," Graduate and Professional Student Council President Rob Saunders said.

Chair of the graduate faculty's executive committee Monty Reichert, however, said attrition may be an over-determined problem.

"We're trying to figure out if this is the normal stress and strain of graduate education.... There's a certain inefficiency built into every system," said Reichert, who is also the director of graduate studies for biomedical engineering, which at 21 percent has the lowest attrition rate among engineering departments. "The question is, is there anything you can do about it?" he added.

Some students who enter as doctoral candidates do not drop out entirely but instead get a master's degree, which typically takes less time to achieve than a doctorate. Because those students count in the attrition statistics, the drop-out rates are higher than many department heads might think, Reichert said.

"We have to carry the debate into the departments," he said. "I think most have no idea this is happening at this level."

The completion rate for disciplines as a whole is highest for the biological sciences and lowest for engineering. Within these broader areas, independent departments range from 40 to 90 percent completion rates.

Reiko Mazuka, director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology: Social and Health Sciences, hypothesized that more scientific fields may have better retention rates due to their "building block nature, so you can see the fruit of your labor each day," as opposed to more theoretical humanities. Mazuka's department has the lowest attrition rate of the social sciences, at 17 percent.

Because some departments are so small--with only a few students per entering class--Siegel said the executive committee will focus on the departments that are large enough that the rates are statistically significant.

Because doctorates generally take between five and 10 years to obtain, the committee will examine attrition rates of the Graduate School's incoming doctorate-track classes from 1991 to 1995, although the Graduate School has instituted many changes since then, including smaller class sizes and increased financial support. Over 90 percent of those incoming classes have left the program by now, either after getting a doctorate, master's degree or dropping out entirely.

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