Using students to help stop students dropping out

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Who better to ask about why students drop out than students themselves? Jamie Rawsthorne was in his first year at the University of West of England when he met with vice chancellor Steve West to see how he could help prevent students leaving before the end of their courses. The result was the start of his company Unique Insights. Jamie explains why and how he took on the retention challenge.

I’d been getting increasingly frustrated after seeing friends and fellow students drop out unnecessarily without getting the support they needed. I have an entrepreneurial streak so I decided to see if there was something I could do about it. After meeting with Steve, I read the retention research series What Works? and subsequently conducted over 90 interviews and held five focus groups to see what could be done to better support students. The result was creating Unique Insights.

“No real communication with the institution”

From speaking to students and reading academic literature it was clear to see the transition into higher education was an issue for students. Students do all their university research before the application deadline in January, eight months prior to arriving. It’s no shock that they said a lot of this information had been forgotten by September.

When tested, we accurately identified over 110 students who dropped out in the first six weeks of study.

They also said they found the few weeks prior to arriving at university alienating, and said they had lots of information sent their way but no real communication or relationship with the institution.

The What Works? research reports show that the first semester and Christmas period is the most critical time for students who drop out. The research also showed that 42% of students within their first year had at one stage considered withdrawing and that out of those, only 20-30% actively sought support from support services.

After reading the reports and conducting first-hand research, Unique Insights set out to minimise doubts and maximise support during the transition.

Identifying actionable insights

Fast forward to today, Unique Insights analyses admissions data to help universities identify which students are most likely to drop out and highlight what support they need. This enables staff to provide personal support to students before they’ve even arrived. For example:

  • Is a student travelling over three hours away and so may need reassurance on distance?
  • Are they commuting from their parents’ home and need to be recommended social societies?
  • Are students studying on a course with a high percentage of exam assessment and need to be given methods to handle this?

All of these actionable insights and more are highlighted by our system so the university can provide personal advice and create meaningful relationships with students who need it most. The personal advice offsets worry and the relationship ensures that if students do consider withdrawing they know where to go for support. Both of which are highlighted by research as essential to retention.

So far we have worked with the University of Aberdeen, the University of West of England and Jisc. When tested, we accurately identified over 110 students who dropped out in the first six weeks of study, demonstrating how our approach enables universities to support more more students during the transition, prevent them dropping out unnecessarily and make substantial financial savings as a result. I’m very keen to hear your thoughts by email or twitter.

You can find out more on the website or join Jamie at the Higher Education Academy’s annual conference in July where he’s speaking.

Jamie Rawsthorne
Managing director, Unique Insights