There Is No Substitute for Focus and Effort

Many of our failures stem from lack of effort. Or focus. It really is that simple. Our experience at Bridgewater College is a case in point.

When I arrived, the college was graduating, in four years, only 48.5 percent of its incoming students. In other words, the majority of the college’s freshman class did not graduate in four years.

Failing to graduate so few presents a major problem for any college. First of all, it’s very costly. High attrition means you have to spend a lot more money than you should filling the seats and beds each year.

But it’s not only the direct financial cost that matter. The indirect costs are even higher: the price you pay in diminished reputation (brand) and pricing power.

Colleges with low four-year graduation rates aren’t held in high regard and have weak pricing power (that is, they can’t charge much and have low net revenue per student), which makes it very hard to sustain the institution over the long term. And their employees tend not to be well compensated (since money is scarce).

Finally, there is what I call the moral issue. There is something about recruiting and enrolling students whom you know have a high probability of dropping out or transferring that doesn’t sit well with me. To make matters worse, many of these students leave with mountains of debt. Frankly, quite a few would have been better off by not enrolling in the first place.

Therefore, one of the pillars of the vision I proposed for the college was to improve the college’s retention rate and, therefore, its academic standing and financial condition, as well as the prospects of its students. It was consistent with my guiding principle: the students come first.

That was the easy part. The hard part was making it happen. And that’s where my colleagues¬†entered the picture.

The data are now in (there is always a long delay in publishing data in the world of higher ed), and it shows the employees of the college achieved remarkable success in just their first year of prioritizing retention.

The four-year graduation rate increased precipitously from 48.5 percent to 57.6 percent. A 9.1 point year-to-year increase is practically unheard of in the world of higher ed. But the people of Bridgewater College proved it could be done. They did it!

I am no longer associated with the college, but that doesn’t diminish my pride in the accomplishments of my former colleagues. And it doesn’t detract from the sense of accomplishment in knowing that 50 students graduated on time who, in earlier times, may not have graduated or, at the very least, would have taken longer to graduate, at considerable extra expense (in both time [lost opportunity cost] and money [tuition and room and board]).

So what’s the point, Vera?

It’s simple: focus and effort matter. And hard work pays off.

There wasn’t anything unique about the college. We had a similar experience at the chemical company I once led. And at the state agency I headed. The experience was always the same: the people achieved remarkable improvements simply by focusing on and prioritizing key aspects of their mission and values.

At the company, it was safety and profitability. Once we brought clarity of mission and values to the fore, remarkable progress was achieved.

At the state, my colleagues were able to accomplish far more with the federal stimulus funds on the heels of the Great Recession than anyone thought was possible. And they did it chiefly by focusing on the opportunity, setting aggressive goals and working hard, with clarity of mission.

They deserved the thanks of the citizens of Pennsylvania for what they accomplished, but, of course, their work went unnoticed except to a very few. For many people, it feels better to deride government and those who toil for the public good. It’s a shame the nattering nabobs of negativism refuse to acknowledge and take pleasure in our collective accomplishments.

Personally, I get a kick out of seeing others succeed. And accomplishing remarkable things. And you can, too, Vera.

You, too, can experience a sense of purpose and fulfillment when you do a good job and are part of an effort that yields remarkable results.

Moreover, you can feel good when others succeed. When their hard work pays off. When your hard work pays off. When you and your colleagues make the world a better place.

One thing I’ve learned in life, Vera, is that there is no substitute for focus (clarity of mission and values) and hard work. They¬†always pay dividends.

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