- Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action by Vincent Tinto
Unarguably one of the classics of higher education literature over the last quarter century is Vincent Tinto’s Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. Although not without its critics, Tinto’s theoretical work and analyses have largely stood the test of time. Tinto’s initial argument, modified over the years, was that going to college for traditionally aged students was a separation ritual and a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Students who were more engaged with the campus culture were more likely to do better than those who were not. The argument was elegant, persuasive, and significant. From this work flowed a great many subsequent research projects that investigated how students might be more engaged in college and, of consequence, what those who worked in colleges needed to do to enhance student development. Tinto’s scholarship had particularly significant implications for those of us concerned with issues of access and equity for low-income first-generation youth and students of color. On the one hand, some suggested that greater attention needed to be made to engage first-generation students more fully on college campuses. On the other hand, some worried that a call for engagement suggested that students of color needed to be assimilated into mainstream campuses. The persuasive nature of Tinto’s argument made us consider what might be done to help students adapt to what many viewed as alien campus cultures.
In some respects, Tinto’s new book, Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, picks up where Leaving College leaves off, and as we elaborate, therein lies the problem. Anyone who knows Vincent Tinto’s many articles and books has come to think of him as a careful wordsmith who is more Hemingway than Dickens: short, clear writing with numerous examples which never [End Page 280] gives way to florid prose or extraneous detours. Completing College is a brief 228 pages, and the text itself is a mere 125 pages. One challenge of his current work, however, is that its brevity all too frequently neither provides compelling evidence nor looks at emergent trends.
As opposed to a theoretical argument about student retention, this book focuses more on what institutions must do so that fewer students leave college. The text opens by repeating some well-worn findings from the research community: A college degree still pays; retention is not good enough; expectations are not high enough; support structures are inadequate. Tinto then turns his attention to what might be done to overcome such problems (e.g., create summer bridge programs, improve freshmen advising, and develop learning communities). Although the attempt to create linkages between research findings about student engagement and practical solutions for reform are admirable, the text fails in multiple ways.
Our largest concern is one of timing. This is a book that describes an academic climate from the last century. The use of social media, technology, games, massive open online courses (MOCs), and the like are barely mentioned. While one can rightfully claim that no clear-cut findings exist pertaining to the efficacy of MOOCs or other such innovations, to ignore that they exist in a world where the very students addressed in the text use them extensively is a shortcoming. The result is that the book’s proposed remedies may have been useful at the end of the 20th century, but they seem old-fashioned in the second decade of the 21st.
Further, many of the examples that are provided seem useful, but the evidence provided is lacking. The reader is told, for example, that summer bridge programs help “facilitate the transition from high school to college” (p. 31). A variety of research is also cited that states that summer bridge programs enhance rates of retention (p. 32). Although these sorts of programs unquestionably show promise, they come in many different formats and with a variety of different purposes depending upon the type of students served, the intent of...