On a two-week recruitment trip to China and Japan, I asked our university partners in both countries how they addressed problems of student retention. In both cases, my question elicited a blank look. Upon further questioning, I realized that retention is not the same type of challenge we experience at US institutions.

Easy in vs. easy out

Most colleges in China and Japan have tough entry requirements but once a student is admitted they do not demand as much for students to progress toward successful graduation. As one of our Japanese partners put it, “Once a student is in, they stay in. Students have a tendency to view college as an easy break between the hard work of high school and the hard work of the first few years of their job.”

Contrast this with the US, where the focus is on pushing students to work hard and grow, and the atmosphere is one of competition, either with peers or with one’s self.

Go it alone vs. go with the group

In more collective societies, students learn and progress in cohorts. When I present to groups of students in these countries, I point out to them that they have spent all their schooling in classes with the same students.

I warn them that when they come to college in the US, they’ll find that students are independent of each other, taking classes with all different students on different schedules. Making friends and finding a network takes a lot more effort.

Preparation vs. placement

A stable job with a large company for all of one’s working life is still the top prize for most Japanese graduates. Although this ideal goal is becoming a reality for fewer young people, it is still common enough to motivate students to complete their studies.

Japanese two-year colleges provide more incentive, since they are legally required to match all their students with jobs upon graduation. Compare these clear and motivating outcomes to the odds faced by graduates in the US. During the height of the recession, combined unemployment and underemployment for recent graduates was estimated at over 50 percent.

US system in contrast

I am not suggesting that these approaches are better than the structures underlying US higher education. But clearly, the structures we build on directly impact the outcomes we see. The US higher education system was not built for high completion rates. It was built for competitiveness, individual achievement, and differentiation. It is easy in, highly expensive, breaks down groups, and teaches students that they are responsible for their own success or failure.

Clearly, this system has failed some individuals, as I survey the landscape and see institutions with four-year completion rates of 10-20 percent. At the same time, this individual achievement model has produced stunning successes and is the envy of much of the world. When we step back and view the system objectively, however, by comparing it with other systems, it is clear that our recent obsession with assessment and a new wave of institutional initiatives alone are not going to change individual achievement structures into high completion rates. I believe that leaves us two choices.

We could shift from the historical roots of our higher education system and adopt some of the practices of the cohort models we see in other countries. This is feasible, but not likely to be a popular choice with higher education institutions. Instead, we could choose to recognize that our system is built to create individuals. We could decide to do it right, investing on a scale not seen since the post-war era in practices that empower the individual—highly individualized advising, robust and easy-to-navigate financial aid, and curricular flexibility.

While my trip did not lead me to the discovery of a quick fix for retention, it did convince me that much of our completion issue is structural. Looking abroad at other models for retention helped provide this kind of clarity. If we really want to see progress, we will have to either dramatically change our structures or significantly reinvest in them.

Reprinted from “Is Retention a Structural Problem? An International Perspective” Recruitment & Retention 29,2 (2015) 4,7