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ThinkEd: Staying the Course or Is Retention the new Dropping Out?

Stuart Middleton


14 June 2010

Chicago USA

I have just spent a few days at a conference in Chicago – Retention 2010, an annual gathering of predominantly researchers, institutional people and representatives of that huge industry in the USA that concerns itself with the delivery of initiatives and the measurement of their success in postsecondary institutions. The most stable statistic in postsecondary education is the fact that still only 50% of students who start a postsecondary qualification actually complete it.

Immediately this is mentioned the cry goes out that this is the students’ fault and that some of the failure to complete is expected and justified. Students have goals that are other than completing the qualification. This might be true for a small group who perhaps are seeking a particular skill set that is more constrained than a complete qualification but research evidence to support this is at best sketchy.

A further group is what the USA people call “stop outs”. These are people who are working to a different timeframe than the conventional periods used to measure successful completion. On the other hand, as one speaker said, we have seen the time used to measure successful completion of a four year degree creep out to six years (seven in NZ?) – “are we headed to ever”?

One statistic that surprised me was that 80% of online instruction was undertaken by students who were seeking to get back on track making up for courses missed or failed and so on. If this is so then it mirrors nicely the early experiences of remote education offered through courseware packages. Planned to reach students who could not get to face-to-face instruction it turned out to be a real advantage for those enrolled in face-to-face education.

Then there is the group that drops out for reasons which are unnecessary and subject to institutional interventions. This is the biggest group and these are the students that we can do something for to see them stay engaged.

There are good reasons to do so. Failure is not a good outcome and damages people personally, financially, in career terms, and in terms of their engagement lifelong with education. It is also worth a huge amount of money to institutions. Improving retention rates could in fact allow institutions to meet strategic goals that they might have for growth and at the same time with some savings on recruitment and marketing.

The key point of focus in retention initiatives is the retention of first year students into the second year of their studies. The range of retention in the USA is from 54% in 2 year public colleges (the community colleges and vocational technical colleges) through to 81% in graduate PhD private institutions. (Before you get excited about this latter figure, remember that the largest category of graduate student in the USA is now ABD – all but dissertation – they ave done the papers but not undertaken the defining point of a PhD, the thesis.) Overall, one third of students enrolling in postsecondary programmes are not there for Year 2.

A major survey of institutional practices undertaken by ACT Inc and reported to the conference provides interesting reading in terms of what works in seeking to retain students in programmes: 

  • a comprehensive learning assistance programme which has all learning support under one jurisdiction and in one place;
  • reading assistance;
  • advisory interventions with selected student populations (in other words: if you know that some groups of students have identified needs take the initiative and get involved with those students before they discover this need themselves);
  • a solid set of academic advisers;
  • availability of tutors;
  • a programme targeting first generation students;
  • summer programmes and comprehensive orientation / initiation programmes.

The message seems to be – if you discover that students have a need halfway through the first semester then you are probably too late – two weeks is a better timeframe in which to be beginning to spot potential issues that will lead to attrition.

Remember, we were told, that “attrition” means the state of being gradually worn down!

It is interesting that this conference was happening in the US somewhat against a backdrop of “sale price” courses being offered over the summer. Sale Lasts for Two Months – get the course for half price! This is also happening in Britain. This makes sense for two reasons: it has to be in the interests of students to be able to get on with their programmes and complete in a shorter time frame (especially when conventional summer employment is scarce) and it has to be good for institutions to lift productivity in this easy way.

There is it seems to me to be developing quite an argument that programmes simply last too long (Phil Ker posted a comment on this on this site a while back). The trend for increasing university degrees from three to four years to capture a group (Year 3 students) who are easy picking was, I was once told by a retiring high-ranking and respected university official, came from a concern for marketing rather than compelling educational arguments.

The impact of the financial strait-jackets that postsecondary programmes strap onto students is extreme. In the US, one in every five students who fail to complete a degree will in time default on their loan, Bankruptcy is the reward for having tried.

The feeling is that getting step changes in the performance of postsecondary education would not take all that much. The institutional rewards are immense – do the sums related to the increased income from lifting retention rates from the first year to the second year by 2% and the dollar amounts are huge.

 A high ranking Presidential adviser left the audience in doubt that a growing realization about the importance of this to the whole country was percolating through to the highest levels. If we can’t lift education performance and achieve more equitable educational outcomes,  economies such as those in the western worlds will start to suffer.

Watson Scott Swail, a key leader in this field of retention studies and initiatives claims that 95% of institutions are doing the right thing for 95% of students for about 95% of the time. But remember that this is a percentage of those who get to the postsecondary start line.

Published inEducation


  1. M Morton M Morton

    I can see that we could extrapolate this back to secondary school, where students in year 12 decide that school is no longer the place for them and they opt out to find a job or go to vocational training courses. Some of them do return for their year 13 year having found out that the grass is most definitely not greener out there. However, they continue to lack motivation to get into their studies – many seem to have part time jobs or social lives that are way more important than completing assignments. At present senior secondary students in NZ have to be enrolled full time to take advantage of the benefits of free education – I am just wondering that to better meet their requirements whether there should be some more flexibility around this for year 13 – that they should be able to attend school as part time students for the classes that fit their educational goals. That way we could perhaps target our resources more closely to the patterns of student needs in this area as prerequisites to attendance at tertiary institutions. Students who have not yet made up their minds about their career decisions would still be able to complete the necessary entrance qualifications, we would not be wasting resources in teaching reluctant students or following up on absences.
    It would be interesting to apply some of the suggested solutions to retention problems and think that a number could be equally relevant to secondary schools – certainly academic advisers – at my school, we have instituted a system of academic mentoring for years 11 – 13 to monitor students progress towards their educational targets and to motivate them to achieve them. This is the first year, so I can not comment on how effective this will be in rasing achievement or retention rates. We are hopeful that it will do both!

  2. Darel Darel

    Hi Stuart

    Re retention. A surprising by-product of some research we didn’t complete at the ITF was some data that suggested that those taking a break during their national qualification were more likely to complete a qualification. We were focused elsewhere so didn’t back up the bus to tease it out properly. But if retention is about completion then having another look might be in order.

  3. I’ve recently started a blog, the info you provide on this website has helped me greatly. Thank you for all of your time & work.

    • Stuart Middleton Stuart Middleton

      Good on you. I shall read your stuff with interest

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