Universities must focus on retention as much as they do on widening the pool of applications and enrolments, a report by the the Social Market Foundation suggests.
The report finds that students from non-traditional backgrounds have a higher drop-out rate and argues that it is futile to work hard to widen participation if the same students subsequently drop out. It also shows universities’ responses to the problem including promoting university employment opportunities and intervening when students are at risk of dropping out.
Tackling non-continuation at university is vital, the report says, with each drop-out representing “a loss of potential, a poor and probably confidence-sapping experience for a student and an investment in tuition costs which is likely to have a low return”.
The report shows that drop-out rates are creeping up – rising from 5.7% to 6.3% between 2012/13 and 2014/15 for young, first-time students. Over this period, the retention gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students has widened.
There are variations in performance across regions with London coming out particular badly. Universities with lower student satisfaction scores in the National Student Survey also have higher drop-out rates on average, with other factors influencing retention including cost of living, likelihood of students living at home and university setting.
But the report also reveals how UK and overseas universities are responding to the retention challenge.
The report finds that university-provided employment opportunities can help tackle financial problems and increase a sense of belonging. Princeton’s Student Employment Program offers centralised locations for all jobs available for students on campus. It is open to all undergraduate students.
Institutions such as Cardiff University are targeting “at risk” students with interventions including mentoring, advice and other assistance. The development of learning analytics systems can help identify when these students are falling behind with academic advisors taking a leading role in responding.
Role of technology
New technologies are also allowing institutions to reach students in new ways. Trials by the Behavioural Insights Team in further education have shown that text messages to students can increase attendance levels, and similar work is taking place in a higher education setting.
Other approaches include more efforts to make sure that a student is prepared for university life and to ensure that their chosen course is well-matched to their expectations. Some universities are also reinventing “freshers week” so that it appeals to a wider range of students including those living at home or from different cultural backgrounds.
The report calls for greater support from the government and the Office for Students including the recommendation for an ‘Innovation Challenge Fund’ to provide funding for new schemes that help improve retention of students from backgrounds with higher drop-out rates. It also urges more pressure on universities to make transfers to other institutions easier.
Transformations to educational practices enabled by technology are likely to present both opportunities as well as challenges, the report predicts.
For example, accessing learning content remotely can enable some students to continue their studies when they would otherwise struggle. However, for others it may contribute to greater detachment and a reduced ‘sense of belonging’.
On course for success? Student retention at university can be viewed on the Social Market Foundation‘s website