Responsible vs. Accountable…the Retention Edition

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nose goes

I’m going to do that thing where as a parent, I use something my kids do in order to make a point.  Since I have twin 12-year old identical girls, the topic of responsibility comes up a lot. My kid reference is about Nose Goes and a typical event looks like something this:

1) Dad kindly asks girls to clean their room

2) Girls play Nose Goes…both touch their noses at the same time and then stare at each other

3) Nobody cleans the room

The takeaway is that I made the mistake of inferring that BOTH of the girls are responsible for cleaning their room.  This brings up the concept of responsibility vs. accountability.  Here’s the context that I’m using for those two words.  ‘Responsible’ means that the person or persons have some moral or ethical obligation to do something.  ‘Accountable’ means that the person will inherit the reward/blame for the task’s completion/non-completion.

Now I’m not the first one to make this distinction.  Here’s a LinkedIn article called “Responsibility without Accountability is Toothless” from 2014, a blog post called “When Everyone is Responsible, no one is Responsible” from 2008, and even a forum post to an auto parts blog in 2007 called “When everyone is responsible, no one is accountable“.

In Higher Ed, I have seen an increased focus on retention over the last 5 or so years.  My guess is that since the pool of newly enrolled students is shrinking, schools realize that retaining an existing student is a much more valuable proposition.  The challenge is that many folks might be “responsible” for retention, but who is actually “accountable” for retention?  That is, when a student in a class is struggling, who is tasked with helping to save that student?

I understand the “it takes a village” approach.  I found an insightful introspective report published by the University of Arizona in 1998 (my business school alma mater) called “Student Retention: Toward a Culture of Responsibility“.  In it, they include sections called “The Student Responsibility”, “The Faculty Responsibility”, and “The University Responsibility”.  My fear, though, is that by identifying multiple entities who are responsible for retention, it deflects from the sole group that is accountable.

I searched LinkedIn for titles in Higher Ed with the word retention in it.  Check out this non-scientific sampling:

  • Director Support and Retention Programs
  • Associate Director, Recruitment and Student Engagement
  • Vice President for Enrollment and Retention Management
  • Associate Provost for Enrollment and Retention Management
  • Director of Retention and Student Success
  • Director of Student Retention and Services
  • Executive Director of Retention & Completion
  • Director of Institutional Research and Retention
  • Director of Student Outreach & Retention
  • Retention Analytics Specialist       (Yeah!!!)
  • Retention, Enrollment and Achievement Research Analyst
  • Director, Retention and Early Intervention


I’d be interested to learn from these departments about how they tactically address retention.  Do the folks in their group handle it (e.g. a student success specialist who is responsible for X number of students)?  Do they act as a conduit to connect the student with the right kind of support?  Do they enable others (student, faculty) to address retention.

The context here is that retention today is a very different beast from years past.  You have many more non-traditional students who are more likely to need some support.  You have faculty who aren’t trained or prepared to deal with the kinds of issues that students might encounter.  You also see that the tables are turned where in the past, attrition might have been a viable outcome (e.g. set the bar high) whereas today, the majority of institutions are geared towards completion.

So if there’s a retention problem, who is going to fix it?  (now is the part where most people touch their noses).  😉

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