Division of Science Resources Studies
Professional Societies Workshop Series

Workshop on Graduate Student Attrition


Keynote Address
Is Attrition Important, and Why?

Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Division, University of California, Los Angeles

I am very delighted to have been asked to participate in this SRS/Professional Societies Workshop and wish to join NSF staff in thanking you all for joining us. It is exciting to look out across the room and recognize that so many different disciplines are represented here. I look forward to this opportunity for exchange, for renewing acquaintances, and for making new friends.

The Knowledge Age

While we are in our infancy in understanding the full implications of entry into the "Knowledge Age," it now appears that this new era will be defined by information transfer and exchange, and by a transformation in our society. Many of the new jobs being created will require formal education and training and will favor those who have learned to think analytically and those who know how to acquire new knowledge and apply it to novel situations. This new era has already begun to revolutionize our national and international practices of commerce, governance, education, and communication.

In this "Knowledge Society," the greatest natural resource is our human resource. Unlike other natural resources, which are reaped from the land, the human resource must be nurtured and developed throughout the course of a human lifetime. In the emerging "Knowledge Society," education, training, and lifelong learning develop and nurture that human resource. With a strong foundation in education coupled with opportunities for lifelong learning, individuals may be able to apply a wide range of knowledge and skills to the ever-evolving needs of the marketplace.

Our concern today with attrition is a reflection of our understanding that education is at the core of our nation's future success. We have a deep belief that an educated citizenry will allow our nation to promote the scientific discovery and technological innovation that fuels economic growth and determines the job opportunities and high standards of living for our citizens.

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The Cost of Attrition Throughout the Education Pipeline

As we enter the "Knowledge Age," our nation has a difficult dilemma. We have the finest system of graduate education in the world, yet we are struggling with a variety of problems facing our pipeline to higher education. We know that there are students who limp along through our schools without profiting fully from the education they are receiving. We are also painfully aware that students drop out of school at each stage of education, from elementary school through the later stages of doctoral education.

It is easy to see the personal and national ramifications of attrition in the early stages of education. Early school dropouts tend to cost society more in future financial assistance, health care, emotional care, and a variety of other services. Indeed, data suggest a close relationship between schooling and economic performance, life expectancy, health behaviors, and other human capital measures (Gary Becker, May 10, 1995 COSSA Congressional Breakfast). The Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely issues reports demonstrating that income is positively correlated with the level of education attained. Thus, especially with the changes in the 21st century job market that will reflect the increased reliance on knowledge and information, it is expected that individuals attaining higher levels of education will be poised to contribute to society, not drain resources from it.

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The Excellence of U.S. Graduate Education

American scholarship leads the world in many fields, and our system of graduate education leads the world in producing the finest scholars. It may be that for this reason we rarely have discussed the costs to society of graduate student attrition.

We enjoy basking in our successes. In science and engineering – the very fields that are ushering us into the information ages – students flock to the United States from around the globe to study at our universities and gain the advanced training available at our research institutions. In the arts and humanities, our universities are lauded for their ability to inspire and develop innovation and creativity. Thus, the American system of graduate education has been effective in promoting excellence and world leadership in the arts and the sciences, and this excellence continues to foster our leadership and economic competitiveness.

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Attrition from Graduate School

Despite our effectiveness in this area, it is clear that we are experiencing a significant amount of attrition from the ranks of our graduate student population, and the numbers appear to be growing. When I was asked to speak with you today, I was asked to address the question: "Is attrition from graduate school important?" Yes, it is. But we are not sure what impact this attrition actually has on individuals, institutions, or society. Attrition from graduate school is a phenomenon, or many phenomena, which we are only beginning to examine.

In our system of graduate education, there is tremendous emphasis on the initial stage, that of selecting the most "qualified" applicants. We take great pride in selecting the best and the brightest, the most talented and innovative, the students with the ability, drive, and inspiration to pursue doctoral education. In many ways, we act like gold miners, panning for the best nugget, which we can then spend years shaping into something exquisite.

The prospect of losing any of those nuggets feels like a huge loss of potential. This is why we believe attrition to be so important. We have long-range plans and aspirations for the future successes and outputs of those we select. In some ways, we live by the words of Peter Drucker who said, "Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions." After the initial decisions, both on the part of the program offering admissions and the students deciding to enroll, there is tremendous investment in making these "present decisions" pay off in future dividends to the student, the institution, and society.

Given our huge emphasis on selection, the loss of students from our system of higher education is assumed to be the loss of precious human resources. Not only does the student and his or her family lose their investment and their dreams, but also we as a society appear to lose the future value of the student. In addition, there are institutional and societal costs that include the huge investment by the institution in the form of student support, classroom and lab facilities, and faculty time and effort. But the issue is not that simple. There are different types of attrition that occur at different stages of graduate education; that are the consequences of different personal, professional, and institutional influences; and that result in different outcomes.

Before we go on to spend much of our day discussing how to define and track attrition, and how to retain and nurture students, I want to take a moment to caution that attrition is not always a loss. As I have already mentioned, there are many types of attrition. For a host of reasons, students sometimes leave doctoral programs to pursue other opportunities – opportunities that are a better match with their dreams and aspirations. Although we may lose some students who have enormous potential in our own fields of interest, it is preferable that these students find their own life paths. For example, in my state, California, over the past couple decades we have lost some promising graduate students to exciting new and high-tech opportunities that have developed in the entertainment, biotech, and computer industries. Although universities lost some promising students, it is clear that these industries benefited greatly, as did the individuals who decided to pursue these careers.

Additionally some reported "attrition" may not be attrition at all. There are numerous students every year who leave one program in order to enroll in another. Some of these students change programs or universities because they realize that there was a different field that they would prefer to study, while others change to programs within the same discipline that offer better academic matches with their interests. When these students leave or transfer, they often do not notify their academic departments. As a result, they become part of the attrition statistic. But given that they are continuing to pursue graduate degrees, it is not really attrition from the standpoint of our interest in human resources, although it may indicate a problem for the discipline or a program that is losing its promising students.

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Doctoral Attrition: First Year to ABD

The more personally and professionally devastating types of attrition are seen when something happens to derail the education of some of our best and our brightest. We see it at different stages of graduate education. Primarily, we find students leaving after their first years or drifting away before completing their dissertations, and sometimes we see students leave in the middle years.

First Year: Attrition after the first year will always exist. There will always be a group of students who made a "na´ve" decision when choosing a graduate program, and discover during the first year that the program, or graduate education in general, does not offer what they were hoping to experience and learn. Thus, we will always have students leaving and transferring after the first year, and there may be little that the institution or the program can do, or should do, about much of this. But we do need to develop better ways to track, monitor, and study this group so that we can determine what has become of them, where they have gone, and whether they have dropped out or just decided to pursue a degree elsewhere. It also seems worthwhile to examine our selection practices and determine whether they may be a factor in early attrition. Have we, for example, grown overly reliant on grades and test scores in our admissions processes to the neglect of other relevant attributes of applicants?

More troubling is the cohort of first-year students who leave because of what can essentially be described as graduate school "hazing." Unfortunately, there are a number of programs in a number of fields across our country that decide to make the first year a "weed-out" experience. "Survival of the fittest" in graduate education hazing is not only cruel, but it probably does not identify the most promising and creative students. Instead, it is likely to identify students with very high thresholds for emotional pain or those oblivious or self-confident enough to withstand or ignore it. What may be lost are the students with great potential who would have benefited from a more nurturing or inspiring academic atmosphere.

Middle Years: Attrition in the middle stages of graduate school appears to be related to a variety of factors. This is the period of time when personal and familial factors may play their largest part. Students may leave to attend to family issues or due to pregnancy. They leave to combat financial problems that require them to seek full-time employment. For some of these students, leaving school is imperative. For others, there is a strong role for institutions and programs in many of these cases. Advisors, programs, or universities can improve a variety of offerings that help students negotiate the rapids of graduate school. In many of these cases, improved student support or effective mentoring might mitigate the problems.

Furthermore, there are students who leave in these intermediate stages of graduate education because they have trouble passing the hurdles that are imposed. Some have difficulty passing comps or writing a required master's thesis. These problems can be related to intellectual or creative difficulties, to motivational lapses, or to emotional and self-esteem problems. Institutions and programs could probably influence a subset of these students: those who need additional mentoring, guidance, or encouragement. But for some of these students, it is the appropriate time to grant a terminal master's degree and counsel them to pursue professional goals that do not require a doctorate. There are a number of students, after all, who profit considerably from the didactic aspects of graduate education but who are not cut out (for whatever reason) for independent research pursuits. Although we should work to enhance our understanding of these students, we need to ask ourselves if leaving by mutual consent with a master's degree should even be counted as attrition.

ABD Attrition: Finally, let me address the cohort that offers the most difficulty for those of us interested in attrition. The students who drift away after being advanced to candidacy are often considered to be the most problematic. When these students leave, they leave at the greatest personal and societal cost. These students, after all, have jumped every hurdle and met almost every challenge. They have benefited from years of personal attention and mentoring, and they have gleaned the wisdom of an array of faculty. They are close to meeting the expectations and fulfilling their own dreams and the expectations that the university and society had for them. The individual and his or her family by this point have invested tremendous personal, financial, and emotional resources only to be frustrated and disappointed at the very end. And there is great cost to society, which has invested often through student support but always through years of intellectual investment by the faculty and student colleagues of this individual.

Despite the huge mutual interest in their success, these students are the most poorly tracked and monitored. They often go off to collect their data or to write their dissertations and the assumption is that they will return soon, or at least eventually. We lose track of them, and they seem to lose track of their goals. A large percentage of attrition comes at this critical time. It is a time when we have the opportunity to intervene and a time when it is, perhaps, most important to intervene since they are so close to success.

When looking at attrition throughout the course of graduate education, it is time for us to ask the difficult questions of why it occurs, how we can intervene, and in which cases should we intervene. I would like to believe that we do all that we can to prepare our students for their future careers. Clearly, as we watch students drift away from our programs, we must not be meeting some of their needs.

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Understanding and Protecting Our Natural Resource

Let me conclude by returning to the concept of the doctoral student as a precious resource in our "Knowledge Society." In participating in graduate education, whether directly providing the training or helping to protect and develop policies to facilitate it, we all have a part in developing the natural resource and nurturing it for the betterment of each of our disciplines and for our society as a whole. We care about attrition because we know that the students who leave showed tremendous potential. To the degree that they find a productive niche in society that utilizes the training they received in graduate school, these cases are still successes of a kind. But we all believe that we need to continue to cultivate a new generation of scholars to carry forward the unique role of universities. And to the extent that we lose promising doctoral students, the social costs may be greater.

In The Cost of Talent, Derek Bok contends that "Universities, and their scientists and scholars, have come to play a critical role in America's future, because they are the principal source of three ingredients essential to the progress and prosperity of nations: new discoveries, expert knowledge, and highly trained people" (p. 158). In the same breath, however, Bok enunciates the more far-reaching value of universities and their scholars. He states that "Universities and their faculties also perform other vital functions. They interpret and transmit our traditions and our culture. They help us to understand the world and our place within it. They play an important role in assessing and criticizing our government, our public policies, and our institutions" (p. 158).

Finally, it seems that we could profit from giving additional thought to the range of possible meanings of attrition. Should we, for example, consider attrition evidence of institutional success and failure, not just individual success and failure? The disappointed students may be the disappointed voters who will not vote for the next higher education bond issue in our state. Attrition might also reflect ways in which curricula have not been sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing conditions. Likewise, it may reflect decisions about future placement, an area where universities generally do not provide adequate advice and guidance.

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Jeanne Griffith: Thank you very much, Claudia, for giving us excellent perspective to start our discussion with today. To give us a little bit more perspective, we have asked Dr. Charlotte Kuh, who is the executive director of the Office of Science and Engineering Personnel at the National Research Counsel (NRC) to speak to us about "Attrition: What Can We Measure? What Should We Measure?" Before Charlotte went to the National Research Council in 1995, she was at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for eight years, where she was director of Graduate Record Examinations. Charlotte has a long-standing and strong interest in graduate education and in the kinds of issues that Claudia was elaborating so well for us.


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