For me, it is good to see that the university I work for has recently set strategic targets relating to student attrition and retention. I see this as good because it gives strategic focus on what the students are experiencing and also gives voice to the issues that are causing them to leave before the completion of their studies.
However there are some notable pitfalls in the literature around the ways that universities address student attrition such as:
- Some institutions do not take student retention seriously. They treat the retention problem as just another issue that the institution needs to address rather than an integrated component of educational conditions.
- Some institutions hire consultants who promise a proven formula for retention. (This is a whole other argument in my opinion. Expecting an external consultant to come in to an organization and quickly assess a very complex situation is unrealistic, not to mention they have no long-term commitment or accountability to the organization).
- They adopt an “add a course” strategy. We need internationalization of the curriculum, so lets add an international studies course to a range of programs. This further segments the efforts into more disconnected parts.
“To be serious about student retention, institutions would recognize that the roots of student attrition lie not only in their students and the situations they face, but also in the very character of the educational settings in which they ask students to learn, namely the classrooms, laboratories, and studios of the campus” (Tinto).
Tinto sets out five conditions that stand out as supportive of student learning and retention. These are:
- Expectations. Clear expectations for student achievement.
- Support. Both social and academic support.
- Feedback. Faculty, staff and student feedback.
- Involvement. Engagement in social and academic activities.
- Relevant learning. Learning must have real world value.
There appears to me, to be links between student retention and the Indicators project. For example the project has highlighted the potential for an automatic lead indicator that informs the academic which students have not accessed the online course and which students have not accessed the course at a level consistent with passing the course. If student X has not accessed the course site by week four, the academic teaching staff can be notified and address the issue proactively.
Another concept identified by the Indicators project is student effort tracking. This is where students are informed on what level of activity is generally required to pass the course. Purdue University has developed such a system and is reporting significant success. I thoroughly recommend you check it out.
Both of these ideas are very easy to implement and have the potential to positively contribute to student retention. They cost of implementation and support should be more than covered by retaining only one student. Now to find the time and energy to fight the political battles to get them implemented.