November 2012 Articles

Reading Room

Stopping the Dropout Crisis

A new book by Marcia Cantarella ’68 guides students to college success.

Interviewed by Maria Jacketti

A 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that among the 18 countries it tracked, the United States finished last (46 percent) for the percentage of students who completed college once they started it—behind Japan (89 percent), Slovakia (63 percent), and Poland (61 percent). After stints as associate dean at Hunter College, dean at Princeton University, and part of the dean’s staff at New York University’s College of Arts and Science, Marcia Cantarella ’68 knows firsthand how many students become at risk for not finishing college. As president of Cantarella Consulting in New York, she works with educational institutions, programs, and organizations to ensure students stay on pathways to success. Here she talks about her new book, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide, which provides information and strategies targeted to first-generation and low-income students, and students of color, who struggle to complete college degrees.

What is the primary reason that students leave college?

Cantarella:  Silence.


Cantarella:  Students are afraid to speak up in class or go to their advisors for help.  They are afraid of looking “dumb.” This leads to isolation. Then, if there is a bump, they dig in deeper, into the silence.

Why should students stay in college during such uncertain times?

Cantarella: The more education you have, the more likely it is that you are going to be employed. The more low-income you are, the less likely it is that you are going to be employed because you are lacking cultural literacy, and you are lacking networks. That is why I think it’s so important to use the college years to build networks and cultural capital.

What perennial piece of advice do you offer struggling students?

Cantarella: Tap every resource that is available. Typically, the students in college writing centers have B to B+ averages, and they are shooting for the A. The smart puppies are in the Career Office. I tell students, your tuition is paying for this. How smart is it to leave that money on the table? They understand school as a vehicle to a better life. But they don’t exactly know how and why they have to do certain important things, like developing strong reading skills. It is a matter of helping them to connect the dots.

Will four years of undergrad work remain the norm?

Cantarella: It might take longer to finish college and demand a different evolving model. For many, success will involve internships and more student/ faculty interaction. I’m an advocate of a gap year, especially for males, who are having the greatest difficulty remaining in college.

How does family influence college graduation rates?

Cantarella:  There are two extremes—those who are over-engaged: Helicopter parents hover, and Velcro parents won’t let go. Students need this time to learn how to stand on their own two feet. Sometimes, the best parents are those who don’t bother kids. They are never going to learn unless they have a chance to make mistakes. College is an incredibly forgiving place for this. On the other hand there are parents who do not know enough about college to be able to usefully advise their students. They are more likely to direct their children to specific majors or discourage extracurriculars, which is not helpful, or they might not be able to offer advice at all.

Are you optimistic about the future of higher education?

Cantarella: Higher education is going through a lot of changes. But colleges are hardy institutions. They have been through many different types of economies. There is institutional will to survive; we can’t abandon higher learning. Work today is about brains, not brawn.

Books by Alumnae

A Horse Named Viking, Caroline Rankin Akervik ’93, Melange Books 2012. An unruly black colt named Viking cannot be ridden by anyone until trainer Anne O’Neil discovers how to tame him. Caroline Akervik is an elementary media specialist in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.



50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories, Valentina G. Brougher ’63, Academic Studies Press 2011. This comprehensive anthology captures every major aspect of Russian life, history, and culture in the 20th century. It includes officially recognized writers and dissidents, both well-known and neglected or forgotten, plus new authors from the end of the 20th century. Brougher is professor emerita in the department of Slavic languages at Georgetown University


Children and Families Affected By Armed Conflicts in Africa: Implications and Strategies for Helping Professionals in the United States, edited by Joanne Corbin, M.S.S. ‘86, NASW Press 2012. Drawing on the experiences of practitioners working with populations affected by armed conflicts, specifically in Uganda and Rwanda, this volume aims to enhance the awareness and knowledge of helping professionals who work with children and families who have experienced armed conflict in Africa.

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, Laura Dabundo, M.A. ’77, Mercer University Press 2012. William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, premier English Romantic poet and novelist, lived in conformity with the Church of England. This study explores the ways in which their faith saturates their writing. Dabundo is professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University.

Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, Nina Jablonski ’75, University of California Press 2012. This investigation into the social history of skin color, from prehistory to the present, reveals how the body’s most visible trait influences social interactions in profound and complex ways. Jablonski is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.



Mish Kid to Mystic: Memoirs of a Missionary Daughter, Mary Lou Jacoby, M.S.S ’70, 2012. Jacoby traces her life from the jungles of West Africa as a missionary child through teen years in the American South and on to her present life as a minister’s wife, psychotherapist, and artist.



The Zukofsky Era: Modernity, Margins, and the Avant-Garde, Ruth Jennison ‘96, Johns Hopkins University Press 2012. A rich analysis of American avant-garde poetic forms and politics, this book convincingly situates Objectivist poetry as a politically radical movement comprising a crucial chapter in American literary history. Jennison is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Women in Long Island’s Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Lives, Natalie A. Naylor ’59, The History Press 2012. Women have shaped Long Island’s past for centuries but are nearly invisible in the records and history books. This book sheds light on larger-than-life heroines, including first ladies of the United States, pioneering doctors, dazzling aviatrixes, authors, and suffragists. Naylor is trustee and president of the Nassau County Historical Society.


The Kipper und Wipper Inflation, 1619-23: An Economic History with Contemporary German Broadsheets, Martha White Paas, Ph.D. ’79, Yale University Press 2012. This economic analysis of the Kipper und Wipper inflation of 1619–23 focuses on how the most serious German inflation before the hyperinflation following World War I affected people’s lives and behavior. Paas is Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College.


Women and the Law: Stories, Elizabeth M. Schneider ‘68 and Stephanie M. Wildman, Foundation Press 2011. This book examines landmark cases establishing women’s legal rights. Schneider is the Rose L. Hoffer Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and has also been visiting professor of law at Columbia and Harvard Law Schools.

The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors, Karen Sullivan ‘86, University of Chicago Press 2011. This study explores the personal motivations, morals, and choices of key figures of the medieval inquisitions, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Dominic Guzmán, Conrad of Marburg, Peter of Verona, Bernard Gui, Bernard Délicieux, and Nicholas Eymerich.

Entering the Blue Stone, Molly Best Tinsley ‘64, Fuze Publishing 2012. In this memoir, Tinsley examines her life with her larger-than-life military parents and their struggles with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Tinsley taught on the civilian faculty of the United States Naval Academy for 20 years and is the institution’s first professor emerita.