Student retention – not how, but why

For the last two days I’ve been in attendance at the Strategies for Student Retention conference in Melbourne. The conference was an interesting mix of background information on retention stats in Australian higher education, strategies to improve these retention rates, arguments around the concept of students as customers, and plenty of discussion about the challenges that lay ahead for higher education. To summarise the themes of the conference in five points:

  • attrition at universities is a thing;
  • some of it is largely unavoidable, and relates to external factors in the lives of students;
  • some of it correlates to student demographics, but to varying degrees;
  • sometimes behavioural indicators can predict it;
  • sometimes intervention strategies can help students stay on if the challenges they are facing can be worked around.

I’m not going to spend time going into more detail on the above though – there are plenty of fine scholars already doing that far more justice than I can here. I will however demonstrate the variation of opinions on the matter by sharing some responses to the following question I posted on Twitter:

If I had a dollar to spend on increasing student retention, where would it be most effectively spent, and why?

Here are some of the responses I got…

Response1 Response2 Response3 Response4 Response5 Response6 Response7 Response8

As you can see, plenty of opinions, all with some merit, but I’m yet to see any clear evidence of what combination of the above gives the most effective outcome in terms of reducing attrition. Anyway, park that thought, that’s not what I’m concerned about in this post.

The real question I want to pose here though is whether or not that dollar should even be invested in the first place.

You don’t have to look far to find commentary on the need to improve retention rates, and reading articles like this one the goal is clear and singular – how do we keep students at university so they can complete their degree. Period.

While listening to the discussions at the conference around this topic it struck me that my personal experience at university was very probably a good example where the dollar not being spent at all was the right thing to do for me. To give a little more insight into this, I studied mathematics at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s. I completed my undergrad degree without too much trouble, managed to get through Honours (although encountered for the first time concepts that I genuinely struggled to understand), and floated into a scholarship-funded PhD at the ripe old age of 22, primarily because they offered me the chance, and I had no better life plan at the time. Two years passed with no real progress in my research topic. I was underprepared, disengaged (as were my supervisors at the time), unmotivated and about as ‘at risk’ as I could be of withdrawing. Throw in being from a low socioeconomic background, being first in family at university and being disengaged from the university social scene and I would have been setting off multiple early warning signals if such things had existed back then.

When I finally dumped my PhD to join the workforce I wasn’t particularly pleased with the situation, but as I look back at it now it was, I believe, the best choice I could have made in the bigger context of my life. Granted, I don’t have a ‘control variable’ me to test how the alternative life would have worked out, but of the likely paths I would have taken if I had completed my PhD, not one of them feels like it would have been a good move. If an intervention program had attempted to get me to stay then they might have been successful, but I’m not convinced it would have been the ‘right thing’ for me as a person.

So this makes me then consider two follow on questions:

  1. Are the definitions of ‘success’ in undertaking higher education study consistent between students, universities and society?
  2. In a quasi free-market environment, can universities ever successfully balance financial success with success in terms of the ‘greater good’ of society?

The first question perhaps relates back to the philosophical (and debatable) purpose of universities, the difference between profession-driven and generalist degrees, their (perceived or real) benefit to society and the individual, and the validity of ‘completing a degree’ as the primary measure of ‘success’. For me, while completing my undergrad helped me learn how to think in a structured way, not completing my PhD helped me to learn several other valuable lessons about myself, my motivators and the kind of work that keeps me interested in showing up for work each day. While there’s a whole post in that thought alone, I’ll leave it at the proposition that success for the individual may look very different from either the university view of success, or the view of success that society as a whole might have.

Which brings us to the second question. While universities aren’t profit making entities, they still need money from somewhere to keep the lights on and the staff paid, which has to come from some combination of government funding, research funding, student contributions and whatever other sources are available. While the Pyne reforms may be gone for now, some would probably argue that it is only a matter of time before they come back in another form, with the end result being the same – students carrying a greater share of the cost for their degrees.

I use that last term with unease, as it should probably be more along the lines of ‘students carrying a greater share of the cost to attempt their degrees’. The concern I have is whether the sense of both entitlement to gain a degree and pressure to reduce attrition ultimately ends up in an ethical impasse for universities. Again to go back to my situation, if I had had more financial ‘skin in the game’ back in my failed PhD attempt (as it was I had virtually none), then it would have put far more pressure on me to stay and complete. It would also have put far more pressure on the university to keep me there as a paying customer. If this had been the case and I had completed my PhD, I’m not convinced that I would have been of any more benefit to the Greater Good of humanity, I don’t think I’d have been any happier, and I doubt I’d have been any more employable (outside of academia anyway).

So who would have been the winner in this scenario?

Granted, the university would have gotten another one or two years of me as a fee paying student, but I’d have never made the grade as a strong mathematics researcher (I wasn’t good enough), I doubt I’d have contributed any more to society than I have in my non-PhD life, and I suspect I’d have ended up on an unsustainable career path based on what I know about myself now with the benefit of 20 years in the workforce. That said, in a world of higher cost pressures on universities, there must be an increase in the pressure to retain students no matter what, and the balance between what is needed financially and what is the Right Thing to do ethically will be a precarious one.

I should make it clear at this point that I am not against improving retention rates. For those students who would benefit from completing a course of study and are being held back by challenges that can be overcome then intervention programs are undoubtedly doing good for these students, the university and society in general.

There is, however, a sliding scale of intervention, and the devil must be in determining how much intervention is the ‘right’ amount on balance between the needs of the student and the university. This is evident on at least two fronts – firstly a financial (for the university) basis as the law of diminishing returns kicks in when administering intervention strategies, and secondly on an ethical basis in terms of understanding when it is actually the Right Thing for the student and the university to part ways. In my case, I am glad that I was allowed to slip quietly away into the night – I wonder if I was to return to study in perhaps ten years from now if the scenario would play out the same way.