This seems to make sense. After all, who could reasonably argue against improving university retention rates and increasing the number of people who complete their studies and gain a qualification? Not only do efforts to these ends meet each university’s duty of care responsibilities, retaining more students and for longer also helps maintain a university’s bottom line.
Some universities work particularly hard on student retention. They variously employ strategies such as: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance; student-friendly approaches to administration; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; senior appointments charged with improving retention; and significant funding directed at all of these efforts.
But the fact is that, despite universities’ best and concerted efforts, not everyone who starts a university program will finish one. The statistics on attrition range from below 10% for some elite universities to over 30% for other universities, typically with non-traditional student bodies. There is a wide range of factors that contribute to attrition. Research shows that some of the major factors include demographic factors and personal factors.
Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of attrition include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. Certainly, if we excluded all students who met these criteria, retention would soar and we would retain a far higher proportion of (a far smaller number of) students who commence university study. Most people think the ‘better’ universities are better at retention. In fact, the exclusive universities are better at retention. This is partly because they tend to exclude students with demographic factors that contribute to attrition.
For example, the typical, commencing domestic university student at an elite Australian university is an 18 year-old, middle-class, unencumbered, school leaver who studies full-time and on campus and lives at home with mum and dad or is financially supported by them to live on campus or in a shared house. Elite universities have relatively high retention rates and fast completion rates because its students are largely able to complete their program of study in the minimum time. Free from many adult responsibilities, one would expect them to do so, by and large.
However, this stereotype of an Australian higher education student is out of date. While there are a large number of students in the Australian higher education sector aged 18-22 years, with the latest available figures from 2015 showing almost 670 000 students in this age bracket, the same figures show there were over 181 000 students aged 30-39; almost 90 000 aged 40-49; over 36 000 aged 50-59 and almost 10 000 university students aged 60 and over. More about this here.
As indicated by government statistics on mode of attendance, a growing number of university students have never actually set foot on a campus, having undertaken online and other external modes of study. These same figures show an increasing number of students study part-time. Many start, stop and start university study over a very long period of time. Some take almost a decade to complete a three-year degree.
Students at regional universities such as mine rarely match the elite stereotype. A recent national research study I have led indicates students from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds studying at regional universities often have complex lives and competing priorities. Many of these students are parents and many have other caring responsibilities. They must balance academic study with these responsibilities, which often include the need to engage in paid employment while studying.
Many are also the first in their family to attend university. This means there is a lack of familiarity with the peculiarities of university life and expectations of them as students, and an absence of particular, university-specific cultural and academic capital in their families on which they can draw.
Many experience significant financial pressure. The costs of study materials, travel to university and the like on top of the usual expenses of living, including sometimes supporting a family, often while on a reduced income, mean they may have to make difficult choices about their priorities that other more traditional students do not have to make. These choices include leaving their studies, temporarily or permanently.
Students’ personal challenges, such as those outlined above and others that any student can experience, such as physical and mental health or relationship issues and/or accidents or misadventure, are very hard, if not impossible, for universities to proactively mitigate. And when personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their retention and success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study. Sometimes, it’s just not possible.
The recent research study found eight key factors that contribute to success of students from low SES backgrounds at regional universities. One key factor in success is these students’ possession of particular personal attributes. Specifically, the study found that a student’s own attitude, motivation, determination and resilience helps them succeed at university despite the challenges and obstacles they faced. Another key factor was family support. Where such support was available, whether through psychological or emotional encouragement, financial support or ‘in-kind’ assistance, this contributed to student success at university.
The other six key factors are: financial security and sustainability; reliable technology; universities understanding and responding to the particular circumstances and needs of students; the facilitation of students being and feeling connected to university; student preparedness for the realities of university study; and an inclusive, engaged approach to learning and teaching.
The research showed that students from low SES backgrounds studying at regional universities are doing it very tough financially. The significant challenges inherent in living in poverty and concurrently managing the demands of being a university student while balancing priorities related to those of finances, paid work and in many cases, family and/or carer responsibilities were clear. In addition to continuing the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), adjustments to income support policy and improved arrangements for the provision of scholarships to students from low SES backgrounds who are studying at regional universities would provide a higher likelihood of financial stability for these students, which would, in turn, increase their likelihood of completing their qualification.
Reliable technology is a key factor. While often difficult for low SES in regional areas to afford and/or access, some of the benefits of reliable technology to students include: being able to study online; flexibility in important aspects of learning and study; enabling interaction with and timely responses from staff; and fostering connections with staff and other students.
Of course, understanding and responding to the particular circumstances and needs of students leads to improved outcomes. University staff, initiatives and approaches that take into account the realities of students’ complex lives and competing priorities contribute to student retention and success. The research showed that existing practices in promoting the existing university support services, engaging in empathic support, respecting students and exercising flexibility, including through using technology, all have positive influences on students’ outcomes.
A feeling of connectedness to the university, its staff and fellow students is critical in relation to helping students feel encouraged to continue with their studies. Early engagement with students and approachable staff are important to this connection and technology is an important tool for facilitating such connectedness, including by enabling interaction through social media. Universities need to facilitate students being and feeling connected to university.
Students need to be prepared for the realities of university study. While some students who are first in their family to attend university are prepared in some ways for study and university life, many have gaps in their understanding of what is specifically expected of them as a university student. Building students’ capacity for success and their confidence, including through making the implicit expectations of them explicit, are key practices that assist students to succeed.
The research found that an inclusive, engaged approach to learning and teaching helps students to succeed. Taking into account individual learning needs, intelligently designed assessment, making sure expectations are understood, scaffolding learning and engaging students in interactive exchanges all assist students to successfully progress through their studies.
The research found that none of the eight factors is a ‘magic bullet’ for retention of students and proposes that they are inter-related and that the impact of each on an individual student will be different, depending on that student’s individual circumstances, priorities and needs.
Student attrition is a wicked problem and funding universities on completions is a dangerous and potentially damaging path for the Australian higher education sector to take. The attrition/completion ‘problem’ could be ‘solved’ by excluding from university study everyone except the previously educationally successful, rich, healthy, unencumbered young people without children, who live in cities and study full-time, on campus. But that solution would create some other issues that would be somewhat unpalatable to an egalitarian society. Doing so might also possibly precipitate regional collapse in some areas, given the significant contributions that regional universities make to regional economies.
While we continue to grapple with this matter, our best individual and collective efforts to keep as many students as possible in study for as long as possible are where we should continue to have our focus.
Link to research report
This article was first published in HERDSA News (2017) 39(2) pp3-4.