Like all Harvey Mudd students, Errick Jackson excelled at math and science in high school. Going to a top-tier STEM school was part of his vision for his future, he thought. He left his hometown in Arkansas and arrived at Harvey Mudd, but the academic pace wore on him, and his grades faltered. “It’s so much packed into those couple of years,” he says. “If you can push through that couple of years of just getting up to speed, things will kind of even out. But for me, it was just … I didn’t want to do that.”
Jackson told his story about becoming ineligible to re-register (ITR) to Welcome to Muddcasts, a podcast series produced by Angelica Virrueta ’18 and Lily Yang SCR ’18 about the college and academic experiences of several Harvey Mudd students. The project was sponsored by the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity (the Hive) and advised by professors Pat Little and Fred Leichter. Virrueta and Lang took a human-centered design approach to reimagine the Core curriculum and its impact on students with a goal to understand the student experience through interviews and share them with the HMC community. Discussions about the College’s Core curriculum and its impact on students often include comments and questions about ITR status.
Jackson went on to share that he thought he would just take a semester off, then return to Mudd. “The staff, the students, they were incredibly supportive,” he says. “Coming from Arkansas to Southern California, that was the dream already. But also being within Claremont, being around the Consortium was awesome. … So, I loved living there, and I loved the people that were living around me, but the circumstances for being there were kind of just not good.”
But Jackson wondered if he could get through it. He says he thought about how “the last 15 years have been working up to getting into a place like this, and meeting people like this, and this was where I was supposed to be. So that was easily the hardest part of my experience: leaving and eventually deciding not to come back.”
Retention at HMC
Retention and graduation rates are often cited as evidence of the quality of an undergraduate education, and Harvey Mudd is fortunate to have very high graduation rates. In 2016, the most recent year for which there is national data (National Student Clearinghouse’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), HMC has a 93 percent six-year graduation rate, meaning 93 percent of students who started at HMC in the fall of 2010 had graduated by 2016. This is much higher than the national average of 59 percent and in line with, or better than, many of the College’s peer institutions. Regardless of its success, the College does continue to monitor retention and graduation rates with the understanding that they are influenced by a number of factors. For example, students with ITR status may have failed to maintain a cumulative GPA in the major of 2.000 or failed to make substantial academic progress. In order to better understand the nature of ITRs while also protecting student confidentiality, HMC examines its ITR data in five-year cohorts. Within the past five years, there have been 46 ITRs. Of those, 65 percent were male, and 35 percent were female.
While the number of students at HMC experiencing ITR is small as a percentage of the HMC student body, faculty and administrators find any ITR case a cause for concern.
“Unquestionably, every Mudder has a breadth and depth of strengths and talents, so it can be quite destabilizing to find oneself declared ITR,” says Jon Jacobsen, vice president for student affairs. “HMC’s educational approach is unusual and not necessarily the best fit for all students in terms of their own educational goals. It is important for students to understand the cause of the ITR and decide if HMC is the right place to continue their journey. Taking the time away to examine and reflect on this— though difficult—can be the right step.”
Cause and Effect
Geneva Miller admits that her poor study habits and a non-supportive peer group contributed to her academic challenges. She completed her first year but returned for her sophomore year feeling “pretty burned out.”
“I still felt a lot of anxiety, hadn’t improved my study habits and felt very little motivation to focus on my studies,” she says. “Although I was enjoying— and doing well in—physical chemistry, the first course outside of Core I had taken in my major, the rest of my classes tanked, and I ITR’d due to low grades.”
Miller says that though she still considered herself a smart and capable person, she felt like a failure. “It seemed like it was a consequence of my own actions,” she says. “I struggled to respond to the reality of my situation.”
Chris Smith (not their real name) also encountered challenges as a result of certain life choices. Smith entered Harvey Mudd with the intention of majoring in engineering, so declared it as a sophomore. Smith’s grades were poor, even in the major, and they couldn’t understand why, since everyone—even they—thought they were destined to be an engineer. Smith liked the material, but when problems arose, didn’t ask for help and didn’t work with other engineering majors to try and figure it out. “I used to procrastinate out of fear a lot because I was afraid of not being able to do a problem, so then I would just put it off and put it off. By the time I would start it and I didn’t know how to do it, it was too late, because everyone was sleeping, right? Like you can’t go ask your professors for help at two in the morning.”
After three years of struggling, exacerbated by substance abuse, Smith became ITR.
Smith, Miller, Jackson and other students who experience academic difficulty are on the radar of the Scholarly Standing Committee (SSC), a rotating faculty group that handles academic regulations, student academic records and academic grievances, among other duties. If not making satisfactory progress toward a degree, students are notified and a change of academic status is made. The notification sent to the student includes the reasons for the action and the prerequisites for return to regular status. Criteria for determining “satisfactory progress” include the grade point average in courses required for the major, the overall grade point average and grades for the latest semester’s work. Students may be placed “on warning” (they remain in good academic standing but improved performance is expected; GPA is between 1.800 and 2.000) or Probation (a formal change of academic status appears on official transcripts; substantial improvement is required; GPA is below 1.800). Probation is the last step before ITR.
What comes after the ITR notice is an individual decision. Some students, like Miller and Smith take time off then return to Harvey Mudd (Miller returned after three semesters; Smith after two and a half years). Some, like Jackson and James White, follow other paths.
White came to Harvey Mudd in 2009 from a small charter school in Arizona. He completed the first year, took Summer Math and returned his sophomore year ready to take on a computer science and mathematics joint major. That fall didn’t begin well: He struggled in Electromagnetism and Optics, and this affected other classes. He was ITR the first semester of sophomore year but petitioned to return for spring 2011, blaming recurring migraines and believing that if he applied himself better at the start, he would do fine.
“In truth, I just wasn’t a good fit for HMC,” says White, who adds that he followed the advice of professors and deans, though it didn’t help much. “I was smart, but I couldn’t keep up with the pace.” He failed a non-major course and received poor grades in his major-based courses. It was toughest sharing the news with his mother: spring 2011 would be his last semester, he was ITR again. “I made a wise decision and didn’t contest it,” he says.
Both White and Jackson decided to move on and not return to Harvey Mudd, though it was not an easy decision, especially for Jackson, who says he is still processing what happened. “It’s not like failing a test. It’s like failing 15 years,” Jackson says, referring to the preparation leading to Harvey Mudd. “It’s going to take time, and I’m OK with that.”
Jackson says his time at Mudd did for him what any college experience should do: Help students find their passions. Plus, the ITR experience came with a valuable lesson. “I think the biggest thing that I learned about myself is that I need to not be afraid of failing like that because it just happens .… I’m not the only one who’s ever gone through something like that before.” Jackson, who says happiness for him is “a camera on a mountain,” now works at Nikon and showcases his photography on the website ejacson.com and on Instagram.
When White returned home after being ITR, he took classes part-time for a year, built up his GPA and was accepted to Arizona State University. “I graduated in Spring 2015 with a 3.92 GPA in informatics, a concentration in game design (where I also met my lovely wife) and an acceptance to a business analytics graduate program with ASU, which I completed with a 3.93 GPA. A few months later, I landed a position at CVS Health as a research analyst for Medicare issues, and I’m on track for a promotion.”
Smith and Miller are also back on track: Both intend to graduate from Harvey Mudd in May 2018. They are among the 19 percent of students who ITR’d between 2011 and 2015 who have returned to attain an HMC degree. Another 14 percent from this cohort are currently enrolled.
De-stigmatizing the ITR
Miller, a joint chemistry and biology major, says, “The main things that helped me turn the situation around were support from my professors and from my significant other.” Her physical chemistry professor, Bob Cave, expressed confidence in her and offered a research spot in his lab. “This made a world of difference to me and really helped to clear away some of the self-doubt.” Before returning to HMC, she worked at two part-time jobs and took online and community college classes (The SSC did not accept her online courses but did accept the community college courses that Cave helped her select.). The time away made a difference; she was ready to return by fall 2015.
“My sleep schedule improved significantly as a result of regular work hours, and my time management improved as I became increasingly busy. Taking online classes was helpful because it reminded me that I did really enjoy learning. Community college classes just about drove me crazy because they felt too easy. That really drove it home for me that I wanted the challenge of Mudd once I had the skills in place to face it,” Miller says. “Now that I’m back, it’s been a totally different experience for me. I work hard but in a way that is sustainable (or as sustainable as possible for Mudd, anyway). I enjoy my classes. My transcripts are beautiful. I really wish it hadn’t taken the full journey of ITRing and coming back to school to get to that point, though.”
After a year and a half of ups and downs in New York, Smith got sober, got a job and began taking classes related to computer science, the major they decided to declare. After approval from the SSC, Smith returned in January 2016. The students who had been first-years when Smith arrived at Harvey Mudd the first time were now seniors, so that was an adjustment. Smith has purposefully kept the workload manageable and has done well, which has been a great confidence boost, Smith says. Smith is also very intentional about seeking advice and, especially, asking for help. “That’s the thing that took me until I was 23 to figure out, so asking for help is not an easy thing to do, but it’s important,” says Smith, who will work for a software company in Seattle after graduation.
“My ITR was really tough on me but I think it is important to de-stigmatize the issue and help others who might be in similar situations,” says Miller, who plans to take off a couple years before applying to graduate school. “You may benefit from taking some time off of Mudd to take care of other influences that may be making it harder for you to focus on what you want from your education. It certainly does not mean you’re a failure or not bright or anything like that.”
A point that rang true for each of these Mudders who have experienced ITR is that leaving Harvey Mudd, whether temporarily or permanently, is not the final chapter.
“You may continue to experience failure, or you may not,” says White. “If you persevere and succeed, you’ll have gone through a crucible that most of your classmates will never be able to understand, and you’ll be stronger for it. If you do fail, it’s not the end. You’re still a talented individual who just wasn’t cut out for the educational methods of one elite STEM school in California.”
And besides, White says, “ITR or not, you’re still awesome.”