Student retention is a hot topic for universities and faculties, particularly since the Australian Government has made retention a priority for all Australian Universities with government funding partially dependent on attrition rates from 2018. Retention is measured by the proportion of students who come back for the next year of study in their course. Attrition is the inverse of retention.
In June this year, the Higher Education Standards panel published a discussion paper on student retention, Improving retention, completion and success in higher education. It found that the proportion of students dropping out of higher education has remained stable at around 12-15% over the last decade despite some media hysteria. The report notes that reported figures depend on the calculation.
The Department of Education publishes two figures:
- The normal attrition rate is the proportion of commencing students who did not complete a course in the year they enrolled and were not studying in the following year.
- The adjusted attrition rate only counts students that only those students who left the higher education system entirely. Here, students who move between courses or institutions count as retained.
Universities are understandably concerned with the number of students leaving their institution. Reduction in attrition is an attractive way to stabilize or increase income from student fees. So, universities often also measure institutional attrition, the proportion of students leaving the institution prematurely.
Understanding student attrition is the first step to addressing its challenges. The HESP discussion paper summarizes contributing factors, drawing on recent research led by Andrew Harvey and Giovanna Szalkowicz at La Trobe University.
Recent research has found the most likely factors contributing to student attrition are part-time attendance, followed by age and academic preparation, as measured by a person’s ATAR. However, these predictors are relatively weak. The La Trobe University study found much of student attrition is either unpredictable or inevitable. Common reasons cited for withdrawal are personal, including physical or mental health issues, financial pressures and other reasons often beyond institutional control. This may help to explain the relative inelasticity of national attrition data over time.
National data shows retention in natural and physical science is low compared to other fields of education (HESP discussion paper, p35) but the variation between FoE’s is much less than seen for mode of enrolment (external/online, full-time/part-time), age or ATAR.
Despite the factors outside university control, the HESP report concludes that universities can do quite a lot to improve retention. Developing effective action overlaps considerably with related concerns:
- good advice to prospective students (transparency of admission)
- Australian Government agenda to increasing participation in higher education
- efforts to cater for increased diversity in student cohorts
- concern about underpreparation of students, especially in maths
- concern about poor student engagement, notably falling attendance at lectures
- increased student achievement and better graduate employment outcomes
The HESP discussion paper presents a picture of action that universities (and faculties) can take to improve retention. It calls for action:
- Prior to entry: transparent, comparable information on admissions and careers
- Institutional culture: student-first accountable strategy
- Teaching and Learning:
- high teacher quality and ability
- a focus on effective learning and teaching strategies
- an early assessment task prior to the semester census date
- Sharing best practice across the sector
- Student support services: effective transition, academic support, personal support underpinned by learning analytics
Improving retention is a complex task requiring university teaching and support teams to work together. Students often interact first with their teachers who are then in the best position to help or refer them on. Our teaching teams can make a real difference.