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Is Our Retention Problem Actually a Perception Problem? A Look Into Warren Wilson’s Low Retention Rate

by Christian Diaz, News Editor

Many reasons are conjured up to explain the low retention rate, but no one reason satisfactorily explains why so many students choose to leave Warren Wilson College never to return, usually after their sophomore year. One unexplored factor might be the influence of collective opinion regarding substance use and enforcement culture on campus.

For years the college has been grappling with its unpredictable admission cycles. In the fall of 2009, for example, the school was scrambling to find enough living space for on campus students, prompting the administration to convert faculty housing properties such as Preston into student housing and waiving the off-campus fee.

Today the admission report tells a different story. It illuminates our retention “problem:” we have 585 returning students this year compared to 626 at the beginning of the previous fall semester. How do perceived enforcement and substance use on campus affect this trend?

The “typical” Warren Wilson student

Troubling perception is not limited to enforcement on campus. Perception of substance use has also become a factor that raises issues about our community. Many students who choose not to return to Warren Wilson list substance abuse, including tobacco use, as a factor that negatively taints their experience here. But is substance abuse really a problem?

Last April a survey revolving around wellness on campus was conducted with a respectable turnout. The survey was composed of questions regarding mental, physical and sexual health. Substance use was a main component. The findings demonstrated that perception of the typical Warren Wilson student is inflated compared to actual substance use.

According to those who participated in the survey, the typical Wilson student consumes alcohol and smokes tobacco and pot regularly, along with occasional use of other illicit drugs. However, of those who participated only 10% smoked tobacco and less than half had smoked pot in the last month. Furthermore, 1/3rd have never smoked pot in their lives.

This points toward a disconnection between perception and reality, much like it manifests in the perception of increased enforcement, that negatively affects retention. This dynamic affects several facets of the institution including grants, donations and reputation. Some administrators are now pondering if addressing the “perception problem” should now be a fundamental strategy in improving the the college as a whole.

Cracking down

It is common to hear among the student body that enforcement procedures directed toward substance use have become harsher. Stories of students receiving official, written warnings during orientation week rippled throughout campus on the first week of the semester, prompting returning students to conclude that efforts to enforce policy have increased yet again.

To set the record straight, according to VP for Administration Jonathan Ehrlich; Dean of Student Life Deb Myers; and Director of Residence Life Paul Perrine, there has been no conscious move to patrol students more vigilantly.

However, every year change threatens community cohesion, especially between students and their authoritative peers and community members. The pervasive “us vs. them” mentality unarguably soured collective experience as a community last year, when campus activity was suspended by President Pfeiffer for an emergency discussion.

The repercussions of that tumultuous period are still talked about today among returning students as a negative chapter in their college careers.

The source of the common perception that a crackdown is taking place appears to be Residence Life procedures which have been revamped to increase efficiency in responding to students who regularly violate guidelines. Namely, all incidences between residents and their assistants and directors are now to be documented in the form of information reports.

“There has been a change in expectations for RAs to address community problems that would normally be addressed by Public Safety or Area Coordinators,” said Deb Myers. “In the past it is possible that RAs felt awkward confronting fellow students, but it is believed now that students would rather be confronted by their peers than by ACs or Public Safety personnel.”

Information reports make a warning “official” in the sense that all warnings will be documented and passed on to Area Coordinators, so that they can better support RDs and RAs in enforcing rules.

An example scenario might include a student who plays music loudly during quiet hours. Information reports would prevent a student who persistently breaks this rule to claim that a particular warning is their first.

It’s not enforcement that is increasing, but the bureaucracy that supports it. Thus, formal confrontation between RAs, RDs, and residents will increase.


3 Responses to “Is Our Retention Problem Actually a Perception Problem? A Look Into Warren Wilson’s Low Retention Rate”

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