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Common knowledge once held that some students would graduate, while others simply would not. Previously considered an effective tool for eliminating those not destined for a tweed coat and a life of academia, recently graduate student attrition has become a serious concern. Over 200 students, faculty members and administrators convened to address this problem as part of a colloquium on graduate completion, A Matter of Time, organized through the office of the dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies.
"This idea that only the cream of the crop survive is a myth, said Dr. Chris Golde, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in California. "When you look at the entry scores, it is a terrible predictor of who is going to finish and not finish." Golde is the research director for the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and part of a new generation of academics focusing on institutional shortcomings in university education. Attrition rates have been consistent since the '50s, but attitudes about them have radically shifted.
"Attrition can be a signal that tips us off that there are a lot of problems that, if solved, would make the whole system work better for everyone," explained Golde.
Canadian universities were forced to take account of high dropout rates two years ago, when the country's 10 most research-intensive institutions, including McGill, compiled information on degree completion.
"We had to confront some very sobering figures: only 50 percent of people in the humanities had completed in the 1992 cohort after 10 years," said Martha Crago, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies. "This was pretty startling." At McGill, attrition rates varied according to discipline, with only 63 percent of social science students completing their PhDs compared with 79 percent of students in physical and applied science, and 71 percent of those in life sciences.
Crago fears that low completion rates will hinder efforts to find new faculty members needed to take over for thousands of retiring professors across the country. At McGill, at least 100 new faculty members are hired each year. "Everyone has been wondering where we are going to get more people from," said Crago, voicing a concern shared by many of her colleagues. "One way is to have people complete who start." Factors such as economic hardship, a lack of social support, discord between advisors and students, familial responsibilities and a negative intellectual environment may influence a student's decision to leave their program.
Some researchers have suggested that a sense of collective responsibility on the part of the university could go a long way in curbing attrition. Catherine Millett is a research scientist at the Policy Evaluation and Research Centre at the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey whose work focuses on access and types of funding available to students. Like Golde, she began her research on doctoral education while she was still in school, motivated by her own experience as a student.
"This notion of accountability is starting to filter up," said Millett. "We have seen, at the moment, the prevailing public policy is 'no child left behind.'" Just as lower-level educational institutions must adhere to a standard protocol, so too should universities, according to Millett.
Incoming students are now demanding greater participation in the application process, bombarding faculty and administrators with inquisitive emails.
"More and more we are realizing that we have a right to ask questions as students, that some of this information should be answered and if it can't, that should tell you something," said Millett.
As of November 2004, potential graduate students will have a new tool at their disposal. The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies has compiled a list of questions students should be asking institutions before applying.
McGill is attempting to ensure greater transparency and communication through annual process tracking, an approach recommended for keeping both faculty and students on target. Students must now meet with their advisor and one other faculty member to chart their goals and expectations for the year.
Much of Millett's work has focused on the practice of mentoring, a proven method for encouraging academic integration and success. "Questions are emerging on what it is these mentors do and how we can help faculty and students think about the mentoring relationship," said Millett. "I think of it as a two-way impasse." While completing her PhD, Millett had both an advisor who took care of the administrative work and a mentor who gave her advice on her career.
During her research, Millett found that approximately 28 percent of students abandon their studies because of financial reasons, a figure that conflicts with a recent emphasis on quick completion. English graduate student Jaqueline Wylde remarked on the discrepancy. "Coming from a department where people have to babysit or waitress in order to pay the rent, it is unrealistic to ask people to complete in four years," she said. Wylde indicated that the university must do a better job of financially supporting students if it is to expect optimal results. Currently only half of the graduate departments at McGill offer full funding.
"I think it is important that every person have a shot at realizing their dreams," said Golde. She also pointed out that pursuing a master's degree or a PhD may not suit the best interests of even the brightest students. While high attrition rates are reason for concern, leaving one's program is not always bad.
"As one person once said to me, 'I started talking to the books and they weren't talking back. I realize I need to be in conversation with a lot more people.' It just wasn't the right choice," said Golde. "I think one of the things institutions can do is help people figure that out quickly, to make sure there is a set of experiences and opportunities where you realize that you need the books to be talking back."
For more information, visit The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies www.cags.ca/indexe.html.