Simon Newman and the Business of Freshman Retention

Mount Saint Mary's University is no longer a quiet Catholic school hidden away in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Its former president Simon Newman just made himself famous for suggesting struggling freshman should be drowned like bunnies.

Running a College Like a Business

The heart of the problem is that Newman, a former private equity fund manager and Stanford graduate, was more of a business man than an academic. He came to MSMU in 2015 with the goal of helping it grow. He aimed to increase its endowment, expand its student body and make it better recognized on the national stage.

How do you do that at a 200-year old liberal arts institution? Such schools commonly operate more like academic sanctuaries, where students enjoy intellectual pursuits cloistered away from the noisy business of the big city. They are the opposite of a technical institute. Professors spend more time creating future professors than preparing young people for the workplace. They can be old-fashioned and slow to change.

I went to such a school: Dominican College in San Rafael, California. Founded in 1890, it was a place to study theology, art history and, in my case, poetry. When I arrived in the early nineties, it was beginning to transform. The new president allowed the curriculum to adapt to the demands of business, adding Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Business and other in-demand programs. In 2000, it became Dominican University and reorganized into multiple colleges. Now it has numerous new facilities including a sports complex. The student body has also doubled. Go Penguins.

Newman was aspiring to a similar goal. He was treating the school less like a convent and more like a business. He responded to the educational market place. He knew more students meant more income. He was aware of another basic business truth: it costs less to keep a customer than it does to find a new one.

The Cost of Drop-Outs

Dr. Joe Cuseo of Marymount College estimates it costs 3-5 times more to recruit a new student than it does to retain the ones you have. Keeping freshmen happy and ensuring that they graduate is not just good education. It's good business. The budget for recruiting is better spent bringing in new students, not replacing the ones that bailed early.

It's also an important number for promoting the school. A low percentage tells potential students they probably won't be happy with their decision. Schools like Columbia, Yale and University of Chicago can proudly promote their retention rates of nearly 100%. High retention rates can also increase a colleges' ranking in US News.

The Dilemma

Mount Saint Mary's was doing a respectable job at freshman retention. In 2014, it retained 79%, compared to the national average of 72.3%. Freshman retention is defined as the percentage of first-time, first-year students who enroll next year. The number is based on the student population declared on September 25th. 

Classes at MSMU start the third week of August, giving students a month to drop out before they officially count as part of the population. Newman figured it was better for them do drop out early rather than later.

In an email to faculty, Newman explained his plan to dismiss 20-25 students before September 25th. This move alone would increase the freshman retention rate by 4-5%. He asked professors to prepare a list of students likely not to return. He distributed a survey intended to screen students for culling. Attempting to help them graduate would be pointless. These students lacked the will and talent to succeed. They were dropouts waiting to happen anyway.

Professors refused to participate. They never delivered the list. Two were fired. In January the school paper released a volatile article on the topic. Newman back-pedaled from his bunny-drowning comments before resigning at the end of February.

Newman was doing what he thought he was hired to do. His move made sense logically as it would have saved the school money and brought up stats that play into heavily used rankings. 

However, he went too far in his comments. He forgot he was working for a school, not a bank. He defended himself by explaining that it is kinder to let a student receive a tuition refund and move on than letting them spend thousands of dollars only to drop out.

This is a thought that still makes too many in the higher education industry uncomfortable. But he does have a point that dropping out and wasting money hurts a student as much as it hurts the college. What do you think?