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The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education: Connecting Past and Present

Abstract

John R. Thelin reevaluates the idyllic image of university life in an earlier period and uncovers the historical roots of America's "attrition tradition." Thelin finds that not only did university students often drop out at a high rate in the early 1900s, but also that college attrition was largely ignored until the last few decades. If we are to tackle the challenge of raising graduation rates in an era of increased access--a strikingly modern goal--it will require fine-grained, institution-level analysis, Thelin argues, in addition to significant investments in improved data systems for America's colleges and universities.

Using detailed cohort tracking data and a seasoned historical perspective on the origins of today's "war on attrition," this AEI working paper should give pause to ambitious completion promises and prod university leaders to reflect on their own performance data to map a better course for serving students. As Thelin notes, without an accurate sense of how far we have come in our higher education aspirations--and how difficult and costly it has been to get there--we cannot strategically plot the road ahead.

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