I begin the semester with a plea, a sermon, a prophecy:
“Y’all are adult students. Stuff happens. Stuff is going to happen. People will get sick, bosses will work you overtime, relationships will fall apart, kids will need a babysitter, cars will breakdown, spouses will deploy — but you’ve got to stay. Don’t disappear on me. You’re here for a reason. Once the crisis is over that reason will still be there. Be selfish. Don’t vanish.”
Because that’s the thing in a community college: we can enroll students all day long but keeping them is the battle. Keeping them is how we keep our funding. Keeping them is everything.
Ask any professor at my college what their retention rate is and they can probably tell you. It’s how we measure the success rate of our students and, by extension, our own success.
It’s easy math:
number of students who passed the semester divided into the total number of students (excluding students who either failed, were dropped, or withdrew)
My retention rate since 2015-16 is about 70%. I keep track of the numbers myself even though the college also sends a report at the end of the year.
My active duty military students tend to stick around. I don’t often worry about them.
It’s everyone else. Those are the students who worry me and, unavoidable cliche, keep me awake.
It’s the student who discovers that she has cancer and will begin chemo three weeks prior to the end of class. She has an “A” average. She has four children at home. Her husband works full-time. A week later she comes into my office and looks emaciated. Tired. Says she’ll finish the course. It gives her purpose. Thinking about the next semester keeps her connected to the idea of a future.
It’s the online student who went quiet for a few weeks. She’d been consistent and then suddenly vanished. In her course reflection, she expresses intense emotional pain. She expresses, either to me or to her word processor, things I doubt she even tells her therapist. I ask her to come to my office. There’s no reason for her to repeat this class. She can finish a select few assignments and I’ll submit an “Incomplete” for now.
I always make sure to tell my students that I’m a product of community college. I tell them that I wouldn’t have been able to get into a university straight out of high school. I was a dedicatedly mediocre high school student. Self-sabotage. Self-loathing.
I’ve never understood why students feel safe confiding in me. This has been the case since I was just a 23-year-old high school teacher.
I think about the student who was suddenly uncertain about the future of her citizenship status. I stayed with her after class to help her research immigration lawyers.
The student from Yemen whose family still can’t escape because of the Muslim Ban.
The student who was arrested in a raid on one of Fayetteville’s less reputable establishments. I asked him, “Well, can you find a way to write your essay from county lockup?”
The student whose two-year-old granddaughter was struck by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting.
Students lost to suicide. To murder. To apathy. To domestic violence. To PTSD.
At the start of the semester, I show them data about retention rates nationwide. I tell them that only about 6 of 10 university freshmen advance to their sophomore year on schedule.
I show them the woefully high rate of students who take five or more years to finish a four-year degree.
I don’t want them to have illusions about college. I don’t want them to be here just because “it’s the thing you do after high school.” I don’t want them to believe that anything is guaranteed.
Every semester I preach this sermon. Make the same stupid, goofy jokes. Within twenty minutes they’ve probably figured out what they’ve gotten into with me: nerdy, suspenders, curly hair, glasses, maybe a bow-tie. How old is this guy, anyway? Why’s he so skinny?
I tell them that I want them to stay. I don’t want to see seats slowly empty as the semester progresses though I know that I will. I know that I’ll be striking out names in my attendance book.
Absences will mount. Students will withdraw without warning.
Bear in mind that my students range from age sixteen to infinity. I teach in one of the most ethnically, linguistically diverse communities in the nation.
They are veterans, single parents, sometimes without a permanent home, sometimes in danger, sometimes obnoxious, sometimes brilliant, sometimes desperately struggling against hunger or lack of sleep or addiction.
I want them to stay.
This is the fight.
I have the best job in the world.