Attrition, meaning shrinking, is a commonly used term in college. Student attrition typically refers to the number of students who do not complete their program of studies. These “dropouts” are viewed as failures by the schools and reduce the “graduation rate” typically measured by everyone from the schools themselves, to the accrediting agencies to the national publications (e.g., U.S. News & World Report).
The dropout rate at American universities is about 50% for traditional students and 60% for online learners. (National Dialog on Student Retention, 2008)
Validity and Reliability
As any statistician or graduate student can tell you a statistic is meaningful only when it satisfies two important criteria: Validity (both “construct” and “content”), and Reliability. Validity, the most critical of the two, simply means that the test “measures what it purports (is supposed) to measure”. And Reliability means that it consistently does this over time.
How valid is this measure?
With attrition, there are several concerns. If the retention rate is calculated programmaticaly, it fails to account for inter-program transfers. If it is applied to the institution as a whole, it still has problems. For example, do we really want to measure if a student completes their education at a particular institution, or should our primary concern be that the students obtains their degree or diploma? It could be easily argued that the latter measure is most important. When the Census Bureau reports on the percentage of “college graduates” they aren’t particularly concerned about how many schools the graduate attended. Whether the student graduated from “Podunk U” or “Retention College” is of no consequence. The important number is the percentage who graduates.
The institution perspective
Of course colleges are always looking for ways to measure their success. Is it quality, quantity, reputation, faculty/student ratios, etc.? All of these measures, and more, are incorporated into the College Rankings which are so eagerly consumed by prospective students, parents, graduates, administrators and the college community. Just take a look at the most recent U.S. News College Rankings.
But how meaningful are these measures and rankings? Probably not very. From one perspective, especially at the two-year (Community College) level, success could mean that there are large numbers of transfers to four-year colleges. This would be true whether or not the student completed their Associates degree. A broader view of institutional success may involve a longer perspective. Longitudinal studies, tracking students throughout their total academic life might provide a better perspective. For example, if a student attends “Lousy U” and has such a horrible experience that he is turned off from education for the rest of his life, that would clearly be a negative. If, on the other hand, students at “Success College” gain confidence and experience academic success, but due to increased confidence and broadened perspectives move on to other schools prior to completing their program of studies, this could be considered extremely positive.
Student Retention Research
The converse of student attrition is student retention. Perhaps the best model of student retention comes from research and a theoretical perspective provided by Vincent Tinto (Tinto V, ). Although there is limited empirical evidence to support Tinto’s theories, his work clearly identifies the complexities of the issue. Some of the factors in the retention equation include: academic integration, teaching, learning, support, facilities, [student] qualifications/preparation/motivation, individual attributes, family attributes [e.g., mother’s education], finances, debt, medical, family events, social integration, etc. When interacting with the principal factors of Goal Commitment and Institutional Commitment, dropout decisions are made (or not made).
According to Tinto the different reasons for departure boil down to two categories: 1) Voluntary (student decision) and, 2) Involuntary (poor academic [and/or attendance] performance). Tinto, (and other researchers) further refine this model by emphasizing two overarching decision markers: 1) Academic Integration, and 2) Social Integration.. In other words: 1) how is the student performing academically, how much do they enjoy their subjects, and how they view themselves as a student; 2) how many friends the student has at the school, quality of interaction with faculty and staff, and how much they enjoy being at the school.
What can We Learn?
The admission of students who are not ready, inadequately prepared, or don’t have sufficient commitment to succeed in a College program will clearly increase the attrition rate, and although intervention can help mitigate the problem, the stage is set for failure. And, many students lack the self-motivation to perform adequately in the less-structured post-secondary setting.
Students leave school for a number of reasons. They may not do well academically, or they may have competing priorities which cause attendance problems. They may feel socially isolated at school or feel disconnected from the institution. They could have financial problems, family problems, learning disabilities, transportation, childcare or persistence issues. They can have a combination of problems, and even all of the foregoing could apply. If they are minority, foreign, adult learners, re-entry students, low income students, single-parents, etc., they have further complications. Students may not feel supported by the institution or do not relate well with its staff. A primary factor is students’ relationship with their teachers.
Merely measuring attrition may not tell the whole story. And, some factors are beyond administrative or faculty control. However, establishing a supportive culture and a welcoming environment can help.
What can be Done to Improve Student Retention?
The literature provides a number of suggestions, and intuitively we know some approaches that work. Here are some ideas:
–Provide student services emphasizing a support system for the student (e.g., orientation, advising, counseling, student organizations, social events, carpooling assistance, tutoring, etc.)
–Establish systems to proactively identify problems and quickly intervene to resolve them (e,g., grades, attendance, distraction, etc.)
–Enlist the support of the faculty in improving student retention. Inform them of the problem, offer recommendations, and most importantly solicit their input. –Encourage student input, e.g., student satisfaction surveys.
–Allow students to gain some success before enrolling them in “weed out”/ bottleneck courses (e.g., math and science). –Arrange student events (e.g., Charitable events, pizza sales, celebrations)
–Promote “belongingness” through student government, associations, clubs, etc.
–Recognize student achievements and success (attendance and academic awards) –Keep students regularly informed about their academic progress.
–Gather and analyze student attrition data. Benchmark data and compare with comparable institutions.
–Link with employers and potential employers of students and graduates. Provide superior Career Placement Services for all students. –Assign student mentors to assist incoming students.
–Develop, nurture and maintain a friendly, customer service oriented atmosphere.
–Constantly review, analyze and upgrade programs and services.
–Make every student feel welcome and necessary.
Students leave college for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the institution is powerless to influence these decisions. However, the ideas presented in this article may be valuable to administrators looking to reduce attrition. It’s definitely worth a try.
Tinto, V (1975) “Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research” Review of Educational Research, vol.45, pp.89-125
Tinto, V (1982) “Limits of Theory and Practice in Student Attrition” Journal of Higher Education, vol3 pp. 687-700
Tinto,V., Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, 1994, Univ. of Chicago Press
Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, Ed. Alan Seidman
National Dialog on Student Retention, 2008