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Disaffection at the Top: Elite Colleges Lose Students

by Carole VanSickle



Imagine you’ve been accepted to an elite university — the college of your dreams. Now imagine that a year later you’ve chosen to leave that privileged circle — never to return — and no one there has a clue why.

Such a story is becoming increasingly common in recent years, and Joseph C. Hermanowicz, a University of Georgia sociologist, is trying to figure out why.

“High attrition from highly selective schools is unexpected,” he said. “Both sides of the admissions process are demanding. When such colleges are graduating less than 80 percent of the freshman class, there’s cause for concern.”

Hermanowicz interviewed 90 students who had withdrawn unambiguously, with a stated intention to not return, from several such schools. He assumed they would have devoted a large amount of effort to their decision and taken advantage of the school’s resources in reaching it.

“We found that students think quietly, with little interaction with faculty, advisors or residential staff, before coming to a conclusion,” he said. “Usually you don’t hear from such ‘leavers,’ and the people they leave behind don’t have a clue about the decision-making process.”

Most students spoke to a faculty member only once — for a recommendation letter to another school. “They perceived faculty as nice but unapproachable, largely because they hadn’t had time to get to know them before deciding to leave,” said Hermanowicz. Students spoke to academic advisors, but only after the fact, for dealing with paperwork. It clearly had not occurred to them to discuss their options with these people — who presumably could have provided relevant information and some useful counseling — before reaching a decision, he said. Students informed residential advisors (RAs) of their impending departures, but only as courtesy to avoid concern about the empty dorm room. Most didn’t report talking about the decision with friends either.

These findings suggest that it’s nearly impossible to identify a leaver until they have already left, Hermanowicz said, so institutions need to reach out to the student body as a whole.

“We must increase sustained interaction between schools and students. The study reveals that this would be most profitable through well-designed residential systems in which there is a culture of upper and underclassmen, along with RAs, looking out for one another,” he said. “By educating students, faculty and staff to talk about themselves — among themselves — we’ll have a better shot at finding out there’s a problem before it’s too late to solve it.”

For more information, contact Joseph Hermanowicz at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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