The ‘wickedness’ of student attrition and retention

Earlier this year Dr Celeste Lawson and I wrote a couple of papers (still in review) about student attrition in Australian Higher Education. In the first paper we looked at the actual nature of the student attrition problem while in the second, we looked at the approaches that universities took in their attempts to address student attrition. This post is focusing on the first paper in which we questioned the way that universities conceptualized their student attrition problems. Note: I should add that referring to student attrition as a problem is probably wrong. It creates a negative impression of the situation and and also implies that it has to be solved. This is perhaps the wrong way to think about student retention and attrition.

“Reasons for student non-completion are complex”

(Maher & Macallister, 2013)

We analyzed a survey of students who started, but failed to finish their degrees. The results were pretty much what folk in higher education have come to expect. Students leave for reasons such work commitments, family commitments, financial problems, personal problems, health problems and so on; The usual array of reasons that are found throughout the student attrition literature.

If we consider student attrition as a problem within a linear (causal) system, (which as a sector we tend to do) these factors can be addressed systematically within the organizational hierarchy. For example, many students mentioned work commitments as a significant factor in their decision to leave the university. The typical university response would be to perhaps develop an instructional time-management module for new students; or allocate a learning support person who can help students with their study load; or provide a service whereby students could receive advice on how to better balance their work-study life. All of which are valid responses if the problem was single dimensional.

We conducted a content analysis on the free text comments that students made within these surveys and looked closely at the factors that led to attrition. We found that it was the accumulation of factors that led to the students dropping out, and not single reasons. The complex interplay between a range of factors, and the students’ context ends in their premature departure from university. The following diagram from our paper attempts to visualize this by showing relationships between attrition factors. Note that the strength of the line between the factors indicators the frequency in which the factors appeared together:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.14.27 AM

What is not shown here (and is perhaps an avenue for future research) is that a similar diagram showing weighted interactions between contributing factors, could be developed for individual students. So from a university perspective, we have, not a single or even a series of issues to address, but a complex network of context dependent issues. Many of which are beyond our ability to address, or even perceive. Add to this that even the small subset of contributing factors shown above, have dependencies at multiple levels. For example, a student might identify as struggling with a financial situation that could have been externally triggered at a local, regional or national level.

It appears we have a complex web of inter-related and temporal factors that can contribute to a student withdrawing from their studies. We describe this in the paper as a wicked problem, which I have mentioned before. Wicked problems are difficult to define, have many inter dependencies, are multi-causal, unstable and socially complex (Briggs, 2007). Importantly, traditional bureaucracies with their vertical silos are unable to tackle wicked problems that are ambiguous and lack clarity. Traditional bureaucracies are also risk adverse which can inhibit the innovation, experimentation or bricolage needed to address wicked problems (Briggs, 2007).

the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage
(Camillus, 2008)

Where to from here is the million-dollar question although there are some ideas in the literature about tackling wicked problems that require exploring. Two in particular grabbed my attention given my interest in complex adaptive systems:

  • Involve stakeholders, document opinions and communicate, especially horizontally. This appears to align with the complexity thinking around ongoing ethnographic collection and growing the network conduits between agents. There are also some links to the self-assertive and integrative paper that David has mentioned.
  • Focus on action. Something I’ve been banging on about recently in regards to learning analytics. Detailed planning and analysis are of little use in complex systems, or in this case, with wicked problems, as the future systems states cannot be predicted due to unknowable effects stemming from interaction between agents. Take a number of small-scale actions and monitor for emergence and repeat. As opposed to upfront planning and analysis, then a single course of action. Safe-fail probes is the term that Snowden uses, and it makes a lot of sense (no pun intended).

It is safe to say that there are no silver bullets when it comes to student attrition. However, I believe there is scope to start thinking about and tackling attrition differently. Attrition is a complex multi-causal issue that the sector continues to try and address using SET mindsets and methods. I’m saying we need to think about it differently, and perhaps engage in some BAD practices.


Briggs, L. (2007). Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective. Canberra: Australian Government, Commonwealth of Australia.

Camillus, J. C. (2008). Strategy as a Wicked Problem. Harvard Business Review, 86(5), 98-106. Retrieved from

Maher, M., & Macallister, H. (2013). Retention and attrition of students in higher education: Challenges in modern times to what works. Higher Education Studies, 3(2), p62.


1 thought on “The ‘wickedness’ of student attrition and retention”

  1. If learning is life long and an intrinsic aspect of human beings whether formal or informal, why is there such a worry about attrition?

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