Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 13, 2009.
We're not quite sure what to make of the news that University of Iowa freshmen are among the least likely to return for a second year of university education. But it's definitely not a statistic anyone should be proud of.
According to a recent survey from U.S. News and World Report, UI has an average annual freshman retention rate of 83.5 percent, which ranks last in the Big Ten. Northwestern University, in contrast, ranks highest in the Big Ten with a 96.8 percent freshman retention rate. And even Iowa State University ranked slightly ahead of UI with an 84.8 freshman retention rate.
Ernest Pascarella, a professor in the UI College of Education, reminds us that retention numbers can be misleading -- especially when you compare a public university such as UI with universities that have far more exclusive admission standards.
"What is the preparedness of students you admit has nothing to do with what they do afterwards. It has nothing to do with quality of education," said Pascarella, who studies undergraduate education, including retention rates. "UI has a state legislature that says you folks have to take certain people. We are there to serve the people of Iowa, and I don't think that should change just to move up in U.S. News and World Report."
But the measures by which UI is made accessible have changed in recent years. The Iowa state Board of Regents used to make a promise that any Iowa student who graduates in the top half of his or her graduating high school class would be admitted automatically to the state's universities. A few years ago that simple formula was expanded into an index that would take into account a student's grade-point average, class rank, ACT composite score and the number of core subjects taken.
The change was supposed to better assess whether a student was properly prepared for the rigors of an academic environment. (Potential students can input their information into the "Regent Admission Index Calculator" at http://www2.state.ia.us/regents/RAI/index.html.)
At the same time, the University of Iowa began a more direct partnership with community colleges. The goal was to ensure that students who were not quite ready for a four-year university environment -- or those who just couldn't afford four years of tuition at the university's rate -- could take classes at community college that would readily transfer toward a four-year degree.
And then, while helping to ensure that some of Iowa's lesser prepared K-12 graduates could get up to speed in a community college environment, state and university leaders were talking passionately about transforming UI into a destination university -- one that attracts lots of out-of-state students and additional tuition dollars they pay.
So, that leaves us wondering which group makes up the bulk of the freshmen who fail to return for a second year at UI:
• The under-prepared Iowa students who should have been tracked to community colleges in the first place (a situation that reflects badly on Iowa's K-12 systems)?
• Or the out-of-state students who either couldn't get into or couldn't afford their own state universities (a situation that makes us wonder about what type of "destination university" UI has become)?
We're proud of the state's commitment to keeping its public universities accessible both financially and academically to all Iowans. And we agree with Pascarella that such a standard shouldn't be changed just to "just to move up in U.S. News and World Report."
But the low retention numbers suggest that many of the programs that are supposed to be assessing and assisting potential students are not working as effectively as they should be.