Retention, graduation and gender differences at UK

The Office of Institutional Research at UK has produced over the years many reports to help us understand why some students leave UK before earning a bachelor’s degree. In summary, the following characteristics of our first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students hold true for the past decade of UK retention and graduation rates:

Less Likely to Drop Out at UK More Likely to Drop Out at UK
  • High HS GPA
  • High ACT score
  • Female
  • Well-represented race/ethnicity
  • Satisfied with UK
  • Lives in residence hall
  • Participates in Living-Learning Program
  • Participates in Greek Life
  • High cumulative UK GPA
  • Low HS GPA
  • Low ACT score
  • Male
  • Under-represented race
  • Dissatisfied with UK
  • Lives off-campus
  • Does not participate in LLPs
  • Does not participate in Greek Life
  • Low cumulative UK GPA

It is clear from the IR reports that female undergraduates are somewhat more likely to be retained after the first year than male students at UK. Female students’ retention rates in the aggregate ranged these past five years from 79.2% to 85.8% – compared to 77.2% to 83.0% for men at UK. However, according to a report in 2011, women were less likely to persist at UK from their second to third year. Even after controlling for all other variables, gender shows a significant difference when we being to address issues surrounding UK’s continued low graduation rate compared to our benchmark institutions.

An intriguing twist to this problem in keeping our female students engaged in academics here at UK is that across the board – as measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – UK’s seniors reported overall being less engaged than students at other doctoral research institutions. There are five benchmarks of effective educational practice in the NSSE, and UK’s seniors marked us lower than did the seniors of other Carnegie I institutions in the following:

  • Academic Challenge
  • Enriching Educational Experiences
  • Supportive Campus environment

See the questions associated with these benchmarks in the NSSE pamphlet you can download here.

Should we consider addressing the status of women at UK as a way to explore innovations for improving our graduation rates?

Certainly we understand that a greater engagement in higher education’s type of scholarship takes a form of creativity and leadership that enhances a student’s overall college experience. But have we considered recent studies that posit that women’s sense of their leadership potential falls during the college years, while men’s rises? (See for example, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Nancy Thomas, Civic Engagement and Political Leadership among Women – A Call for Solutions (Medford, MA: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2013). If we address issues of women’s self-perception and valuation of their performance here at UK, would this have an impact on the number of women who go into leadership positions after college thus raising the quality of corporate boardrooms and academia everywhere?  For some examples, see the AAUW initiatives on training women on college campuses for leadership roles in civic engagement, and Nicholas Kristof’s article in the New York Times on the power of diversity in leadership.

According to the Kentucky Commission on Women, as of 2012 Kentucky ranks 38th in percentage of women state legislators with 18.8% female membership (which is up from its 47th ranking in 2008). Women make up only a quarter of  Kentucky’s elected city officials, even though in Kentucky’s general elections the proportion of women voters has consistently outnumbered the proportion of men voters.

In the interest of improving its own graduation rates, could the state’s flagship institution turn this around for the sake of the quality of leadership in all of Kentucky and our future?


About Randolph Hollingsworth

An academic administrator at the University of Kentucky, affiliate faculty in the History Department and in Gender & Women's Studies, as well as with the UK Center for Equality and Social Justice
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