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the Lost Ones*
Tracking those who Left UCLA Can Help Others Stay

Angela James, UCLA Assistant Dean

Angela James, acting Assistant Dean of Academic Initiatives in the Graduate Division, is working on a project that will help graduate schools understand why students leave without degrees and help keep current students on track.

When graduate students leave UCLA having obtained their doctoral degree, they're asked to complete an exit survey providing a great deal of information about their educational experience. However, from 10 percent to 50 percent of students who begin graduate work—varying from discipline to discipline—slip away before they've finished. UCLA knows nothing about why they left or, in some cases, even exactly when.

Given the same situation at graduate schools across the country, the Council of Graduate Schools is funding a three-year project to explore doctoral completion and attrition, hoping to understand why people leave without degrees and then to help more to complete their studies. UCLA is one of the campuses participating in that project, under the direction of Angela James, acting Assistant Dean of the Graduate Division.

The goal is to identify areas where institutional change might promote student completion. Average GRE scores and other indicators of student qualifications are not the only index—or even the best one—of who will stay and who will go. "We are getting stronger students with better on-paper qualifications," Dr. James says, "yet if anything the problem of attrition has grown more difficult."

Gathering information about students who leave will happen at several levels: forging stronger connections with graduate student advisers, making better use of available data, and constructing new research strategies.

"We've never had any kind of survey—or any kind of communication with people who don't complet," Dr. James says. "It's kind of a black hole in our data." Part of the reason for this is that "not completing is rarely as definitive as completing. It's a little more difficult task to identify students, a little more ambiguous."

Students may take a leave of absence for a variety of reasons, from doing fieldwork overseas to accumulating needed funds or handling family emergencies. Students who don't enroll by the deadline may simply be waiting for funding to show up so they can do so. The Graduate Division wants to find within this pool "the people who are at risk of noncompletion," Dr. James says. But the task is still more complicated: "We want to follow up with students in a way that doesn't stigmatize them or force them to make a premature decision or lead them to conclude that we've made a decision about them," she says. "Ironing out the complexities so the information gathering is sensitive to the needs of students" is our priority.

At first, the Graduate Division will focus its efforts on 20 departments from all sectors of the campus—big and small, with many students or few—who have agreed to participate. Besides the intensive data campaign, the project will include workshops on mentoring skills for new faculty and programs on surviving graduate school for new students.

The Graduate Division is approaching the task "in a spirit of cooperation and shared mission," she says, "recognizing disciplinary variations and individual variations but at the same time wanting to make sure that UCLA's institutional practices are the best they can be."

* Reproduced from Graduate Quarterly, Spring 2005, Part 2, p. 20. Graduate Quarterly is a newsmagazine which highlights the achievements of UCLA graduate students and includes articles of interest to master's and doctoral students.

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