Strategies to improve student retention in Argentina

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Strategies to improve student retention in Argentina

“In Argentina, only 27 out of 100 students of universities finally graduate,” states a 2014 article by academics Maria del Rosario Fernandez-Hileman, Angela Corengia and Julio Durand, from Universidad Austral.

Student dropout is a troubling national reality that – as we’ve seen in previous blogs– doesn’t only happen in Latin America, but also affects countries like the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

According to the same article, “while in public universities, only 23 out of 100 students finish their degrees, in private institutions 40 out of 100 finally graduate. Even though college enrollment increased 18% between 2002 and 2010, in Brazil when looking at the enrollment per capita, only 4.3 out of 100 people graduate, while in Argentina only 2.5 out of 100 complete their studies. This shows that, despite the fact that access to higher education in Argentina has opened up, just a few students are capable of finishing their degrees”.

“Even more – the study adds – Argentina has the world’s lowest graduation rates, considering the amount of people that get into universities every year. A proof of this is what happens in Brazil, where the graduation rate is 50 out of 100, in Chile is 59 and 67 in France,” the article states, quoting a 2012 report from the Centro de Estudios de la Educación Argentina.

Student dropout factors

In Argentina, several factors explain the high student dropout rates within higher education, according to a number of studies developed by academics over the last 20 years.

According to an article of Professor Jorgelina Monti, from the Universidad Nacional de La Matanza in Buenos Aires, the main factors behind this are deficient high school preparation, obsolete school teaching models, uncertain economic conditions and lack of vocational orientation. In fact, regarding this last reason, the author states that “within the average of degrees we’ve analyzed, only 30% of students have been enrolled in orientation processes.”

Another factor that stands out is the deep difference between academic curriculums and real working conditions that new professionals are facing, which generates deep doubts in students, regarding the actual value of the degree that they’ve chosen.

It is interesting to see that student dropout is a problem in a country where the number of higher education institutions has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. According to the study “Social inclusion in Argentina’s higher education: Indicators and Policies about access and graduation,” Professor Ana Garcia de Fanelli, researcher for the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), claims that between 1989 and 2013, the number of higher education institutions in the country rose from 52 to 121.

Still, this significant growth of the educational offer has not been able to solve the high levels of student desertion. For Professor Garcia – and for almost every academic that researches this topic – the problem goes back to the public school system, where the weak academic training does not give students the tools that they need to finish a university degree successfully.

The same problem can be easily proved in almost every other country in Latin America.

Now, then, if we take a look at the student dropout problem from a different angle – student graduation rates instead of student desertion rates – we can also find interesting data. Professor Garcia stands that in Argentina “the highest graduation rates are located in private universities, because of several factors. First of all, in the private sector data management is more accurate than in public institutions. Students in public universities can sign for more than one major, and later choose which one is better and suitable for them.”

“The absence – Professor Garcia adds, quoting a study from Enis and Porto – of selective procedures in higher education access and free scholarship policies boost this kind of student strategies (…). On the contrary, getting into a private university means paying a fee, so applying the same public policy implies a high economic cost.”

Student retention efforts

Universidad Austral professors Fernandez-Hileman, Corengia and Durand conclude that “students are not the only responsible for their own effort. Also, what higher education institutions do about student engagement plays an important part in this.

Important actions and programs are focused on learning inside the classroom and improving the contact between teachers and students. The objective of achieving higher student retention rates is just a vehicle to get the most important goal in higher education, which is student learning and the successful completion of degrees.”

So, what are Argentina’s universities doing to improve student retention rates?

According to Professor Garcia, the primary efforts have been focused in tutorial orientations and scholarships. In the first case, older students give academic assistance to freshmen, as a way to quickly level them within the higher education environment.

“Although some studies provide qualitative evidence about the positive impact of tutorials, there is currently little information about the effectiveness of this policy for academic performance improvement and student retention,” Professor Garcia asserts.

Regarding scholarships, two different tools to help have been created: a National Program of University Scholarships (PNBU) and a National Program of Bicentennial Scholarships (PNBB). As with tutorials (…) there isn’t information about the impact of these to improve equity in access, student retention and graduation rates. On the other hand, the amount of money that scholarships give to students is insufficient to allow them to work and study”, the CONICET researcher says.

Meanwhile, Maria Fernanda Arias, Ivana Mihal, Karina Lastra and Jorge Gorostiaga, professors at the Universidad Nacional de San Martin, detail in a 2014 research other initiatives of higher education institutions to improve student retention rates.

Entry-level courses. “It consists of the principal strategy to favor student enrollment and retention, because it prepares them to face the challenges of higher education studies,” a UNSM study says. Rather than a selection tool, it is a goal and an introduction to academic life.

Support lessons. “It starts at the very beginning of the university life and it mainly aims to help those students with deficient learning outcomes from high school.” These classes are meant to be a part of a constant process throughout the degree, but UNSM professors say that students mostly use these tools during exam periods.

Counselors. In some universities, they are teachers while in others they are senior students. The UNSM study stands that this figure essentially is about giving institutional accompaniment.

Teaching assistants. “They are senior students that help freshmen in the classroom when they need further assistance.”

Which of these tactics or initiatives to improve student retention do you think that are more effective? Do you know some student retention strategy especially successful which can be replicated in Argentina? We invite you to share your opinions.


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