Main factors that affect student retention in higher education

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Main factors that affect student retention in higher education

As universities have been developing strategies to improve student retention in higher education, studies and investigations about this essential subject – driven by external consultants and faculties – have shown that there are multiples factors that explain this phenomenon, from economic to psychological issues.

But most of them aim to the fact that there isn’t a single factor that pushes a student to quit from higher education. According to a paper by the Australian Universities Review (AUR), “in most cases, the picture is complex and students leave as a result of a combination of inter-related factors. Echoing the findings of an Australian study, (Long, Ferrier and Heagney, 2006), a synthesis of UK research on student retention (Jones, 2008) identified the following categories of reasons why students withdraw: poor preparation for higher education; weak institutional and/or course match, resulting in poor fit and lack of commitment; unsatisfactory academic experience; lack of social integration; financial issues; and personal circumstances.”

This international concern not only have consequences for student’s life, but also for institutional objectives. AUR explains that “while students who do not complete may still benefit from skills developed, including increased confidence and life experiences (Quinn et al., 2005), in the current competitive and globalised higher education market, the reputational fall-out of low student retention and high student attrition figures can be damaging for institutions (Yorke and Longden, 2004)”.

In a previous blog we talked about some commonly applied strategies to improve student retention. Now it also seems to be appropriated to look back into the problem process and to revise the factors that drive a young man or woman to quit to a one of the most enriching experiences in life.

In an academic approach, many universities identify quitting factors mostly related to student background and motivations. The Griffith University developed a study which is a good example of this perspective.

The investigation revealed the following causes:

  • “Personal difficulties – the most commonly given explanation for attrition, relating to health, finances, family, work and difficulty fitting in or making friends.”
  • “Academic difficulties – lack of academic preparedness, weak academic knowledge or specific study skills required to tackle the demands of the program.”
  • “Full time vs part-time status – part-time students are significantly less likely to continue into second year compared to full-time students.”
  •  “Making an uncertain or the wrong subject/program/university choice is linked to attrition. In some cases, this may reflect poor information provided prior to enrolment or inadequate consideration of educational and career goals.”
  • “Not being in the university of first choice.”
  •  “Loss of interest in the program or subject area.”
  • “Inability to manage time and workload demands and in consequence falling behind.”
  • “Dissatisfaction with the university experience, quality of curriculum or teaching.”

On the other hand, there are other studies that have analyzed this problem focusing on student’s maturity aspects. In the Inside Higher Ed journal, president of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Robert J. Sternberg, identifies 12 factors of student quitting to higher education, most of them related to personal issues:

1Uneven formal academic knowledge and skills. “At many institutions, large numbers of students enter with spotty academic backgrounds, especially in science and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and in writing.”

2. Lack of informal knowledge about being a college student. “A student may believe that the meager amount of studying he did in high school will be adequate in college, when in fact it is not.”

3. Inadequate development of self-regulation skills. “In college, students often find themselves largely “on their own” for the first time in their lives. Some are able to channel their newly found freedom effectively, but others are not.”

4. Impaired self-efficacy and resilience.“Some students come to college uncertain as to whether they have the ability to succeed in their college work. Other students come expecting to succeed and then receive one or more low marks on college assignments or tests that lead them to question whether they are able to compete, after all. As their self-efficacy fails, their drive to succeed in college goes with it. Studies by Albert Bandura and his colleagues of Stanford University have found that self-efficacy is one of the best positive predictors of success in any working environment.”

5. A mindset believing in fixed rather than flexible abilities. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that students (and others) typically have one of two mindsets – or folk conceptions – regarding their abilities. What she calls “entity theorists” believe that abilities are largely fixed; on this view, when a student makes a mistake, the student shows a lack of abilities that is potentially very embarrassing.”

6. Inability to delay gratification. “Walter Mischel of Columbia University found that those individuals who were able to delay gratification performed better academically.”

7. Impaired ethical judgment. “I have found that many of today’s students do not even view as ethical issues such behaviors as cheating on tests or plagiarizing in papers.”

8. Disengagement from the university environment. “For many students, a precursor to dropping out is a progressive disengagement from or failure ever to become engaged in, the university environment.”

9. Lack of interest in courses. “Richard Light of Harvard University has found that one of the best predictors of academic adjustment is taking, during the freshman year, at least one course solely because it is interesting, regardless of whether it is required. Students who load up too much on courses that are required but that do not interest them are at greater risk of dropping out simply because they are bored and find no relief.”

10. Issues in academic trajectory. “Students are likely to perform at a higher level when they feel they have some kind of academic “destination” in mind – or at least when they feel that what they are doing will lead to such a trajectory.”

11. Psychological issues. “Substance-abuse problems, interpersonal problems with important others, and untreated or unaccommodated psychological problems, such as learning disabilities, attentional/hyperactivity disorders, autism-spectrum disorders and so forth.”

12. Financial concerns. “Some students drop out just because they cannot make college work for themselves financially. The financial needs of students make it imperative that colleges and universities calculate aid needs correctly.”

As we can see, there are some many factors that have influence in how this problem is being experienced in every university around the world. Several causes are related to social factors that belong to a certain society, and could have some deep differences from factors of a society from an other country, or even another continent.

So, these experiences show that student retention is a global higher education challenge, that must be managed according to each society conditions.

How is student retention developing in your country? Does it affect public and private institutions as well? Please, share your opinion.